The Good Father, By Noah Hawley

We need to talk about Daniel

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The Independent Culture

The Good Father is narrated by Paul Allen. The head of rheumatology at Manhattan's Columbia Presbyterian hospital, he is rich, handsome, happily married to Fran and the father of boisterous twins, Alex and Wally.

One evening, this blissful quartet is collaborating over dinner with almost nauseating ease when "the outside world muscles in". A television newsflash announces that Jay Seagram, a shoo-in to be the next President of the United States, has been shot and killed. The prime suspect is 20-year-old Daniel Allen, a fact Fran notices as the Secret Service knock on the door. "I am his father, you see", Paul notes simply. "He is my son."

Daniel is one of two blemishes on Paul's otherwise pristine CV – the second is his failed seven-year marriage to Daniel's mother, the flakey Ellen. Although father and son meet with relative regularity, they are not close. Indeed, Daniel is not intimate with anyone. He is the sort of person who seems destined to experience life in solitude.

The narrative of The Good Father is shaped by Paul's obsessive need to understand how his remote but seemingly normal child could join Lee Harvey Oswald and John Hinckley on the roster of creepily unassuming American assassins. Allen spends much of the novel in straightforward denial that Daniel pulled the trigger. When this fact becomes impossible to refute, he starts to believe that his son must have been brain-washed, pursuing an outlandish conspiracy theory with the ardour of Oliver Stone.

This quest is merely a cover-up for the real investigation: to what extent was Paul himself culpable for the death of Seagram, who was also a husband and father with a pitch-perfect life? Paul reads accounts of famous murderers (Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, Timothy McVeigh) for clues of malign parental influence, and reconstructs the final months of Daniel's life.

The Good Father has already been called the We Need to Talk About Kevin for men, and it will doubtless divide opinion in mixed-gender book-groups everywhere. In terms of aesthetics, the comparison doesn't travel far: Lionel Shriver's novel has a fire, a fury and a peculiarity that Noah Hawley's slick storytelling cannot match. A Hollywood screenwriter, Hawley doesn't so much spin a yarn as download them.

On the other hand, this narrative efficiency fits pragmatic Paul to a tee. Smooth but fundamentally decent, he is no more a monster than his son, but no less of one either. His desperation to prove Daniel's innocence is deeply felt, but it also misses the point entirely. As the story unwinds, Paul's refusal to acknowledge Daniel's guilt is exposed as yet another instance of paternal neglect.

This is where The Good Father packs its considerable emotional punch. Not as a harrowing investigation of evil, a critique of gun violence in America or a guide to good parenting, but as an account of a father finally accepting his child, for better and for worse, until death do them part. Male readers: get your hankies at the ready.