THE SENTENCES are good in David Gilbert's & Sons, and they have to be, because Gilbert's big New York literary novel absorbs so many other big New York literary novels into its orbit that if the sentences weren't good, the novel would get stuck on the runway, grounded by its own ambition.

But Gilbert's sentences are polished and funny and dense with observations about just about everything: writers and fathers, hangovers and airports, funerals and acne, bullying and friendship. In those sentences—and in a New York described with conviction and detail—Gilbert locates his authority to write a sweeping novel about the New York writers we lionize.

The plot of & Sons is as knotty as the ampersand that is a recurring motif, as twisted as the perfect New York pretzel that two boys search for one afternoon. Loosely, it's about the life and family of A.N. Dyer, a reclusive and legendary writer best known for a prep-school novel, Ampersand, set at a thinly disguised Exeter. The Salinger comparisons come easy, but Gilbert reminds us of Knowles, too: Upon its initial publication, Ampersand was received as though some Exeter turncoat had taken A Separate Peace "hostage, and tortured it, and brainwashed it, until it emerged from the darkness as a less forgiving version of Crime and Punishment."

The narrator—an admittedly unreliable one—is the son of Dyer's longtime friend. "Our oldest friends, their faces, never really change, as we both travel at the same speed of life," writes Gilbert, but we never catch a true glimpse of our narrator's face, as he skulks, Gollum-like, in the shadows of the Dyers' lives, documenting their triumphs and failures and excavating the funny, permeable membrane between life and literature. & Sons is a big, generous novel, simultaneously full of ideas and full of heart, that rare novel-about-novels that is singularly compelling in its own right.