4starsculture

Noah Hawley's fourth novel, The Good Father, is his first to be published in the UK. A skim read of both his biography the synopsis of the novel could easily give readers the wrong idea of what to expect altogether.

Here is an accomplished TV producer and screenwriter writing a novel about a political assassination, in which a happily married doctor arrives home one evening to see on the TV that a Presidential candidate has been shot, and the man accused of the crime is his own son from a previous marriage.

Initially the question appears to be: did he really do it? And if not, can his Father prove it in time?

So far, so Hollywood. But what unravels is something far more surprising: an exploration of the anxieties and challenges of parenthood, the flimsy grasp we have on our pasts when it most counts, and, ultimately, the extent to which our characters and fates are shaped by nature, nurture and chance.

Hawley's approach to storytelling is to blend action with flashes of insight - the hallmark of great screen writing. But perhaps surprisingly it's the cinematic scenes - the passages that are supposed to make The Good Father a page-turner - that are the least convincing.

The opening scenes in which Paul Allen arrives home to his suburban bliss before turning on the TV and, moments later, is picked up by the secret service, feels a little TV-by-numbers, as does a conventional later passage in which Allen and his accomplice track down an unhinged veteran they suspect to be the real culprit.

But once the book has established its premise it grows more thoughtful, and something far more thrilling than a thriller begins to emerge.

Allen's frantic attempts to prove his son's innocence are, we slowly realise, really him coming to terms with his probable guilt. The intrigue in exactly what happened when the shot was fired is upheld, but before long, that becomes of secondary interest to understanding more about Hawley's characters.

Punctuated by passages of research on real-life American gunman - from John Hinckley to Sirhan Sirhan - a second narrative emerges, that of Danny, the son. In the months leading up to the crime Danny sets off on the great American road trip - a rite-of-passage for lost young American men in particular, an experience that is supposed to enrich and enlighten.

Instead, Hawley subverts this convention. We see how Danny's journey brings him close to redemption - a few months working with a surrogate family, a romantic liaison - all of which would involve staying put. But the desire to keep moving, his attraction to solitude, leads him to become more delusional and angry.

In portraying that great American archetype - the lone gunman - Hawley resists providing an easy explanation of how Lee Harvey Oswald figures end up standing in a plume of gunpowder. Danny's upbringing is unconventional, but not abusive. His young adulthood brings him experiences good as well as bad. He isn't a sexual failure, or a social outcast. Nurture plays its part, but so does chance. This ambiguity is the novel's biggest strength.

But while Danny's story is a mystery you never feel close to fully understanding, his father's is heart-breaking in its clarity.

Written during the first four years of his own experience of fatherhood, Hawley instils Paul with all the worst fears of parents: what if you fuck them up? What if they get in trouble, and you can't help them? We witness every moment of doubt, every flash of hope, every sad realisation that Paul doesn't know his son at all, that they've lost one another.

All of which makes The Good Father sound like a rather pessimistic novel. Without revealing the ending, it isn't. Family, the book seems to be saying, never breaks down completely, no matter how neglected or strained. Paul's instinctive willingness to take on the world for his son, at all costs, is a moving evocation of the bonds of blood.

I hope, however successful The Good Father goes on to be - and certainly the signs are that it will be very successful indeed - Hawley resists any offer to adapt his novel for the big screen. The plot may be all Hollywood, but the prose has all the qualities of modern literary classic.