You’ve followed all the rules: you went to school; built a reliable middle-class profession; got married; bought a nice house; created a family; made a good home; participated in your community—you’ve volunteered; supported charities; given to friends and family members in need; voted at every election—you’ve been a good son, sibling, friend, husband, father—and then one evening after a hard day’s work, you’re home with your wife and children, eating dinner, the television providing background white noise. A news bulletin catches your attention. There has been another assassination: the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, the hope of the nation, the person who is going to turn things around, has been killed, shot by an assassin’s bullet—and you hear your son’s name; your college-student son; the child of your first marriage; the child you left behind, identified as the alleged shooter, branded as a terrorist—and in that flash of mere seconds, your safe, secure, textbook life swirls off of the planet—lost forever in the utter blackness of the unknown.
In the wake of unshakeable evidence of his son’s guilt, including a confession, the father applies the logic of a medical diagnostician, which he is by profession, to uncover possible extenuating circumstances, and in the retracing he tries to justify his own performance as a non-custodial parent to his first-born child. In the retracing, we witness a story known far too well by many of us—one, that despite our good intentions, we have, and will, fail our children. We get caught up in some current event: we divorce and lose daily contact with our children; we are offered the career opportunity of our lives across the country and we become holidays-and-summer-vacations-parents; we get sick; our spouse is unfaithful; one of our children dies; we lose our job. Or, even if we’ve done everything right, something within the nature of the child steers him/her onto the wrong course. We have, and will, fail our children. They have, and will, fail us.
Author Noah Hawley, in his compelling novel The Good Father, has written a father’s agonizing search to prove his son’s innocence—to prove his own innocence, ultimately. But, in the end, this is an intelligent and emotional exploration of one man’s fantasy that he would be the lucky one, the wise one, who would save his child, and in turn, the child would save him. At the dark heart of the novel, this father’s coming to terms with his fallibility as a parent is a sobering lesson to all of us.
The brilliance of Hawley’s The Good Father is that it does not try to solve the enigma of why, in the face of inadequate nurture and/or nature, some children make it and some do not. It respects the integrity of the unexplainable and tells a thought-provoking story that illustrates the impossibility of answering the question: “Who is to blame when a child goes astray?”