Monday, September 6, 2010

The Good Son: A Thinking-Person's Thriller

Isn't it great when a novel surprises you? Despite the fact that Michael Gruber's The Good Son contained three of my literary pet peeves -- story told in flashback, story told in alternating strains of storyline, and dreams and their interpretations playing important roles in the story -- I really enjoyed it.

Gruber is known as a writer with incredible range, writing books about forged paintings, lost Shakespeare plays, cop thrillers, and now this: a ripped-from-the-headlines international thriller with an intellectual bent. Indeed, if Gruber's name wasn't splashed across the cover, you might think Vince Flynn, who had suddenly learned how to write well, had been trapped in a room with John LeCarre, with the resulting work edited and polished by Khaled Hosseini (of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns fame).

The Good Son contains three strains of story: 1) Theo Laghiri is a special forces soldier back in the US to recuperate after being injured in Afghanistan by friendly fire. 2) His mother Sonia, a bit of a free spirit, is organizing a conference in Lahore, Pakistan to discuss how to bring peace to Central Asia. This is a risky move, to say the least, as she is infamous in the Muslim world for a book she wrote in her younger years in which she chronicled her experience of dressing as a man and going on haj to Mecca. Muslims were not amused, and there is a Rushdie-esque fatwa out on her. 3) National Security Agency up-and-comer Cynthia Lam has translated some intercepted communications between what appear to be Muslim terrorists plotting something big. She follows leads and hunches, and plots to use the situation to advance her own career.

And so, as they must, the stories converge at first subtly, and then rapidly, making for a fast-paced, exhilarating second half. But even the back-stories of Sonia's young-womanhood and Theo's childhood in Pakistan that make up good chunks of the front part of the novel are so rich in detail and intrigue, it'd be impossible to tell the real-time story as effectively without them. Sometimes, with back-story, you wonder how much is relevant or even necessary. Not here -- it all is.

Other chunks of the novel are conversations between characters (Sonia vs. Muslim jihadists) in argument regarding the terrorist rationale and the debunking of such. Part of this is Sonia (as a trained Jungian psychologist) interpreting dreams. These dreams and their well-written and logical interpretations provide a fascinating insight into the Muslim religion; one that makes you appreciate the purity and beauty of a religion that has been polluted by radical fundamentalism. Additionally, Gruber's handle on Pakistani and Afghan culture is brilliant, especially in showing the profound differences between those and American culture and thought.

Another really interesting part of the book emerges in the first 100 or so pages, as Theo tries to re-acclimate himself into day-to-day American life. Three different times, he ruminates about the ignorance of Americans about what is happening on the other side of the world; about how angry it makes him and other soldiers that we deign to "support our troops" but have no idea what the wars are really like.  Theo says, "...when you come back, you kind of secretly want your fellow citizens to get blown up a little; we don't admit it, but it's true. How the f#@k can they be so -- I don't know, normal, like in a dream of shopping and careers and ordinary daily bullsh!t, while what's going on over there is going on?" And then later: "...maybe obsessing about money and sex and celebrities and celebrity sex and the teams is a sign that the terror has failed to bite, which is great, but if it's no big deal, why the hell are we breaking the army into pieces over it?'s another thing that makes me snap and get pissed at my fellow Americans."

Overall, I'd rate The Good Son 4 out of 5 stars -- minus a star because at times, you really have to suspend disbelief. Still, this will certainly be a satisfying read for anyone who likes fast-paced thrillers that challenge readers to think deeply...maybe about some preconceptions you've never really spent any time or energy to really consider.


  1. I have a couple of Gruber's books waiting on my shelf, hand-me-downs from my mother who reads him. I'll have to see if this is one of them-sounds really interesting, and timely. I've liked his other books I've read.

    You make an interesting point about the thinking-person's thriller. Usually I read thrillers and mysteries because I don't want to have to think too much, I just want an entertaining story to help me relax from work stress/grad school stress/etc... Perhaps I need to find some other "smart" thriller writers for times when I want depth as well.

  2. I have read his Tropic of Night and Valley of Bones--both excellent examples of (wait for it) magical realist police procedurals. I love his lush prose.

    I'm going to pick The Good Son up soon.

  3. @Heather - That's my general view of thrillers, too. But it's a nice surprise when something face-paced and zooming back and forth between continents actually includes some intellectual challenge!

    @Rebecca - Magical realist police procedurals, eh? That sounds, um, interesting. ;)

  4. Just wanted to say congrats on the BBAW noms. Anyone who used to live in Dayton (wohoo Ohio) and reads Rowling and Pynchon at the same time gets our vote!

  5. @Padfoot - Thanks for the congrats. Woohoo Ohio, indeed! (I actually grew up in a small Ohio town called Sidney. Heard of it?)

  6. wow, with three of your pet peeves, it's amazing that you managed to get through it. . .and then to love it - wow! Must have been something!
    The Pakistani/Afghan aspect is what appeals to me most about this book. So much so that I might just have to read it.
    I've read something else by him, I'm sure, but I can't seem to think of what it is right now.