The ‘good father’ in this novel is successful doctor and family man, Paul Allen, whose 20 year old son, Daniel Allen aka Carter Allen Cash, shoots and kills the charismatic presidential front runner, Jay Seagram, at a political rally in Austin, Texas. We see events from the father’s point of view as he struggles to come to terms with what his son has done, pondering his own failings as an absent father and the bleak future that his son now faces. We also see the story from Daniel’s viewpoint as a disillusioned young man, always on the outside of society, never fitting in. How in his despair he, quite rationally and calculatingly, chose his victim and planned his attack, fully knowing the consequences of his actions.
In the telling of this story, the author not only has his own fictional tale to tell, he also uses real political shootings and assassinations (Giffords, Reagan, Kennedy) to analyse who carries out these acts, what motivates them, what are their backgrounds, what effect did they have on their families. Hawley is very sympathetic to the perpetrators’ families as he demonstrates when he describes the anguish of Timothy McVeigh’s parents (the Oklahoma bomber), who not only have to come to terms with their son’s dreadful crime but also the pain of their own loss when he is executed. Paul Allen quickly realises that although he is an upstanding family man with a wife and two young sons, he has failed his eldest son from his first marriage. Daniel was always in limbo, not happy living with his mother but unable to be part of his father’s new family. This raises the question: how far does a parent need to take responsibility for his child’s actions? Daniel is an adult and knew what he was doing, but should Paul have paid him more attention, seen this coming, been a better father?
Two issues that separate the UK from the USA come to the fore in this novel: gun control and capital punishment. Both highly contentious political issues in America but not even on the agenda in the UK – we are never going back. This novels highlights for me the incongruity, the tragedy, that disaffected youngsters in the US can legally obtain guns, illegally use them to kill and then be legally executed themselves. I find that scary. Daniel talks about people being either wolves and sheep with the wolves needing to separate themselves from the rules of society but this doesn’t have to mean shooting people, there are other ways of bypassing society – communes, alternative lifestyles, emigration. Daniel’s actions were frustrating as he had his whole life ahead of him, he didn’t have to do something so terrible, he had other options.
Although this is a work of fiction it feels like a true story. I found myself emotionally involved with the characters and when I wasn’t reading the book I kept expecting it to be on the news. The emotional tension at the end is almost unbearable, I didn’t want to face up to Danny’s fate any more than his father and there was always hope – hope that there was a mistake, that Daniel didn’t do it, that his young life will be spared… an intense read.