We Need to Talk About Daniel: The Good Father by Noah Hawley

In the first two pages of The Good Father, a novel in the form of a father’s memoir by Noah Hawley, Dr. Paul Allen summarizes, as if for a case study, the activities of his twenty-year-old son Daniel in the months prior to the shooting death that is the catalyst for this book. Over the rest of the book, he attempts to make sense of the shocking crime Daniel is accused of committing.
A rheumatologist, Paul thinks of himself as a “medical detective” – the clinician who is called in to review test results, scans, and every detail of a patient’s symptoms when a diagnosis remains elusive, and who puts the pieces of the diagnostic puzzle together. So he painstakingly reconstructs the chain of events in Daniel’s history, tries to uncover symptoms (anger? depression? neurological disorder?) that he missed, busy as he was with his own career and new family. What part of Daniel’s upbringing or psyche put him on the path to being accused of the assassination of a beloved politician? How much should Paul blame himself, for divorcing Daniel’s mother and moving to New York when Daniel was only 7, leaving him to fly for so many years – an unaccompanied minor – back and forth between him on the East Coast and his ex-wife Ellen on the West Coast?
Paul throws himself fully into his son’s defense, hiring a high-powered attorney and trying to understand the person that his son has become – a lone gunman, a drifter who calls himself Carter Allen Cash and who is seen as some sort of monster. He pores over investigative reports and witness statements, imagining scenarios and reconstructing the events of his son’s life that led him to that watershed moment when he was caught on video holding the gun.
Though not as explosively as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (which was from the point of view of a mother whose child committed a heinous crime), The Good Father builds up tension steadily as details are uncovered and facts are revealed; a psychological profile of Daniel as a directionless young adult emerges. Paul’s obsession with proving his son’s (and, correspondingly, his own) innocence starts to jeopardize life with his new family – wife Fran and their twin 10-year-old sons, Alex and Wally, who are now the bewildered half-brothers of an accused murderer.
Career-driven and sure of himself, Paul is not an entirely sympathetic character at first. He is arrogant and imperious with his son’s arresting officers, confident that he can fix things for his son. But these hard edges quickly erode, and, except for one scene in a men’s room that reminded me of The X-Files, The Good Father is a pretty realistic portrayal of a father might react to the implosion of his son’s life and the derailment of his own. (Remember Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files? He has a book out. Or, I should say, the actor who played him on TV does.)
The fourth novel by Noah Hawley, who is also a screenwriter and producer, The Good Father will be released in March 2012.

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Disclosure: I received an electronic advanced reading copy of this book from Doubleday, a division of Random House, through NetGalley.

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