Dr. Paul Allen is at least trying to be a good father, though perhaps he crosses the line into paranoia when his son Daniel is arrested for assassinating Senator Jay Seagram, a promising presidential candidate.
Dr. Allen is a brilliant diagnostician, able to sort through a welter of conflicting symptoms to reach to the heart of a patient’s disease, and he tries to apply these same techniques to the news of his son’s shocking arrest. He also wonders to what extent he might bear some responsibility for Daniel’s disaffection, for the doctor and Daniel’s mother had gotten divorced when their son was quite young, leaving Daniel feeling unmoored and homeless. When he turns 15, Daniel elects to move from California to live with his father and stepmother in Connecticut, but he is never quite able to settle down. After starting at Vassar, he leaves after three semesters and starts to roam the country, changing his name and picking up odd jobs for a few weeks at a time and then moving on. Eventually he and two veterans are arrested when they’re caught riding freight trains. After the assassination of the Senator, Daniel’s father becomes obsessed with previous assassinations and assassination attempts—and the novel is even contemporary enough to include the attack on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The doctor is convinced that Daniel could not have perpetrated such a devastating crime, even though Daniel has been caught on film and his fingerprints are on the weapon.
The novel ultimately becomes as much about a father’s quest for meaning and understanding as about a son’s political and social alienation—and Hawley delivers on the complex psychology of father-son relationships.