Monday, March 19, 2012

Explaining the unexplainable

The Good Father
by Noah Hawley

Dr. Paul Allen is a good man.  As Noah Hawley’s novel opens, he is enjoying the family tradition of shouting out Jeopardy questions with his wife and twin sons.  The game is interrupted by breaking news.  The Democratic candidate—the presumed next President of the United States—has just been shot at a public rally.  The coverage is chaotic, with reports and footage coming in from a variety of sources.  Finally, some images of the shooter come up on the screen.  It’s Daniel, Paul’s 20-year-old son from his first marriage.  So begins a nightmare.

I think this premise alone is enough to intrigue most readers.  We’ve experienced these atrocities, seen the breaking news coverage, hoped for the best.  Who hasn’t spared just a moment to think of the people who love the perpetrators of these crimes?  Just because your child turns out to be a monster, doesn’t mean you stop loving them.

Within moments, Secret Service agents have shown up at Dr. Allen’s door.  He is taken in for questioning.  They need to know everything about Daniel.  He is shot, in custody, and branded as a terrorist.  Paul is in shock and in denial.  Yes, he’s seen the footage of his son with gun in hand, but he knows that Danny didn’t do it.  As events unfold, Danny refuses to speak or defend himself, so it falls to his father.  But Dr. Allen is a diagnostician, and even as he consistently proclaims his son’s innocence, he mentally searches for the trauma that broke him.

This novel is about the people on the periphery of a terrible act.  It’s about the toll a child’s action takes not only on the parent, but on the entire family.  The story is realistic, honest, and utterly compelling.  Though flawed, Paul is a hugely sympathetic protagonist, even as he’s being reviled by the world.  And while it is clear as day that this loving father is grasping at straws to save his child, at a certain point you have to wonder if these anomalies he finds don’t add up to something more ominous.  And at that point, a wonderful family drama becomes significantly more suspenseful.  These questions will have you turning pages until you finally get the entire story.  Mr. Hawley does a superlative tying up all lose ends, whether plot-related or emotional. 

This is a very contemporary story set in a realistic world most of us know all too well.  The shootings of figures like Gabby Gifford, Ronald Reagan, and Robert Kennedy aren’t merely acknowledged, they’re dissected.  Noah Hawley has tried to explain that which is essentially unexplainable.  It’s extraordinary how well he succeeds.  This novel works brilliantly on all levels.  The writing is very strong without being unnecessarily showy.  Each character, no matter how minor, is imbued with details that bring them to life.  The human drama at the heart of this tale is both heart-breaking and healing.  This is, in short, a flat-out fantastic novel.  Read it!

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