CHICAGO — There is a hierarchy of personal catastrophe, an informal but definitive ranking of all the terrible things that can happen, moving through categories that might be labeled “Worst Thing” to “Next-Worst Thing” to “Next-to-Next Worst Thing” and on down the line.
At the upper end of that list, most people would probably agree, is losing a child. The world’s normal order — parents predeceasing children — is upended.
But what happens if the child is indeed lost, but not gone? When the child, that is, takes another life, and the parents are forced to realize that the fellow creature they created, raised and sent off into the world has committed a heinous act?
For writers, it’s a rich topic, and some very good ones have taken a crack at it, from Lionel Shriver’s brilliantly perverse 2003 novel “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” the basis for last year’s film of the same name; the affecting family drama “Nineteen Minutes” (2007) by Jodi Picoult; and “American Pastoral” (1997) by Philip Roth, much praised by many, but to me, hollow at the core.
Three recent novels bring fresh perspectives and innovative storytelling techniques to this most devastating of circumstances: the plight of a parent whose kid has pulled the trigger, lit the fuse, wielded the knife, measured out the poison — a kid, in short, who has done the unthinkable.
Novelists have to spend a lot of time thinking about the unthinkable.
“The Nobodies Album” by Carolyn Parkhurst, published in paperback by Anchor, is the quirky, ingenious tale of a writer named Octavia Frost whose estranged son Milo, a rock star, is accused of murdering his girlfriend. Octavia finds a novel — in both senses of the word — way to deal with her grief and incredulity: She rewrites the endings to her published books.
Parkhurst’s prose is sharp, vivid and often funny; it has the wonderful quality of fluidity and accretion, of providing the ineffable sense of life going by in the way that life really does, with the days piling up one by one, moment by moment, along with the insights. And insight is precisely what Octavia craves: She has to look at the son she gave birth to and wonder if something she did — or didn’t do — made him capable of killing.
Similarly haunted is the father in William Landay’s “Defending Jacob” (Delacorte) when his son is accused of murdering a classmate. Jacob’s dad struggles with the same searing question as Milo’s mom: Am I responsible? Could I have changed things if I’d given my kid one more hug or one less Oreo?
The newest novel that tackles the theme of parental soul-searching in the face of a child’s arrest for a criminal act is “The Good Father” (Doubleday) by Noah Hawley, a powerful narrative that builds relentlessly to a stunning emotional climax.
The life of Paul Allen, an accomplished physician, is transformed in an instant when his son Daniel is accused of gunning down a politician at a rally in California. Daniel, the child of Paul’s first marriage, had fallen off the grid; he dropped out of college, took a series of slacker jobs and seemed to willfully separate himself more and more from the life of ambition and domestic happiness that his father — like most fathers — had envisioned for him. But could his quiet, gentle, socially maladjusted son have turned into an assassin?
Hawley’s novel goes from a tight focus on Paul’s anguish to a wide-angle look at other real-life, high-profile homicides and the tangled family histories of those responsible: Names like Booth, Sirhan, Chapman and McVeigh sink and rise in the book’s troubled waters, like murder victims tied to rocks and dumped in the river — but that float to the surface of the public consciousness, again and again, each time more violence shakes the world.
The author’s prose is crisp and straightforward, and it achieves a kind of stark, muscular poetry as he describes the “dark wet road” of a young killer’s mind and the torment of those who love him.
All three of these worthy novels are essentially murder mysteries in the broadest sense of that phrase. They are murder mysteries in the way that “Hamlet” and the “Oedipus” plays are murder mysteries — meaning that the book’s journey is not from a simple question to a simple answer, as in the case with a whodunit, but from a simple question to more and ever-more-profound questions: At what point does parental culpability cease? When the child is 18? 21? Never? How much of what a child does, the good and the bad, can be laid at the feet of the people who raised her or him?
Although these novels spend most of their time on the emotional plight of the parents forced to feel the agony of a child’s arrest for a criminal act, they also explore the possibility that the kids might be innocent. I won’t give away any endings — you’d kill me if I did — but I can report that the tally for the trio is: In two novels, guilty; in one, not.
The first line of “The Nobodies Album” is the kind that draws you in by warning you not to be drawn in: “There are some stories nobody wants to hear.” It turns out that we do want to hear them, if they are told by writers of skill, acumen and compassion.
Julia Keller: firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2012 the Chicago Tribune
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