In his review of David Gilbert’s acclaimed new novel “& Sons” in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, the reviewer Blake Bailey touched on a problem familiar to many writers: the infuriating tendency for relatively minor characters to steal the thunder from the protagonist. In this case the protagonist is a reclusive J.D. Salinger type, A.N. Dyer, who, having achieved astonishing success for a novel written in his twenties, has become reclusive and cranky, unable to repeat his earlier triumph. Unfortunately, Gilbert can’t quite bring him to life on the page, Bailey writes: “the reclusive, inscrutable artist is a dreary cliché…A. N. Dyer can scarcely speak except in elaborate platitudes about his vocation, and no amount of agonizing exposition can account for how such a witty and (mostly) benign young man turned into such a bore.” Ah, but there is another writer in the novel although he barely figures in the narrative. He is a young man named Christopher Denslow and he makes his appearance at a party held in his honor for his “much anticipated first novel entitled ‘The Propagators.’” Christopher happily autographs copies of his novel while, in Bailey’s words, congratulating himself for “’remaining patient with those who were far less evolved, hoping this might excuse his other, faintly genocidal thoughts.’” Bailey then goes on to say: “At such times one can almost hear Gilbert’s sigh of relief as he abandons the mechanics of plot and lets himself have fun, pure fun, describing a believable, non-mythic writer like Denslow and his precocious opus…” Gilbert even includes an imaginary starred review from Publishers Weekly for Denslow’s debut novel, which describes the work as “’both a satire on postwar America and a thoughtful meditation on misplaced dreams, the pitfalls of conformity, of colonialism, the rise and fall of feminism. It is the human condition as seen through an ape.’” “Now that’s a book I want to read,” Bailey declares. What he’s saying basically is that a cameo appearance by the upstart Denslow makes more of an impression than the cantankerous, pontificating A.N. Dyer. (I am going by Bailey’s review here; I haven’t read the novel myself.) This is not an uncommon dilemma. Writers can go mad trying to bring a protagonist to life, only to be caught unawares when a minor character, tossed in almost as an afterthought, turns out to be such a vivid presence that he shows up the characters the novel is supposed to be about. I think one reason for this is that the protagonist is forced to carry the burden of the plot – a huge responsibility – and so he doesn’t have the freedom to behave foolishly, to run amok, to do as he pleases. You don’t have to be a writer to know what it’s like: You’re under a lot of pressure, everyone is depending on you to get something right; you’re so conscious of not failing that you almost invariably slip up, you take your eye off the ball, you mess up the assignment, you miss the turn in the road. But if you’re relaxed, if you know that not so much is riding on your actions, or you simply don’t give a damn, you do OK or not, and so what? If you miss you try again. Denslow is free to enjoy himself and hawk his new novel while poor A.N. Dyer is condemned to nurturing regrets over his fading career and irritating his fictional family and his real-life readers. Even a genius like Shakespeare must have had trouble keeping Falstaff in line when he wanted his audiences to pay attention to Henry V. Oh, sure, young Prince Hal could give a mean speech to his soldiers before they battled the French in the Battle of Agincourt but Falstaff, brash, overweight, and inebriated Falstaff, is the guy you want to hang out with.