THERE'S A HIGH DEGREE of magic in a novel when you now and then find yourself so acutely frustrated by the self-destructive behavior of a character in it that you want to grab him by the shoulders and shake sense into him. Or her. Nor is the frustration eased by your awareness that of course this behavior stems from the very nature of the character and has a terrible inevitability.
Evan Hunter's Love, Dad has that magic. A long book but never a dull one, it deals with a segment of comparatively recent social history -- the upsurge of youth against the parental Establishment under the impetus of the Vietnam conflict -- which even in retrospect has the power to hit a good many nerves.
The focus throughout is split between two members of a single family, the Crofts: father Jamie and teen-age daughter Lissie. The period covered extends from 1968 through 1971, but the final chapter carries us in one leap to the present and provides us with a marvelously ironic epiphany toward which the story has been moving from its opening lines.
More than a generation ago when J.P. Marquand made the transition from the wily Mr. Moto to the late George Apley -- from the detective genre to the so-called mainstream novel -- he remarked that among the lessons taught him by the writing of detective fiction was, in his own words, "the restraint of the ego." Evan Hunter, who as Ed McBain has produced a series of skillful police procedural novels dealing with the imaginary but highly plausible 87th Precinct, has obviously absorbed that same lesson. This is demonstrated by the subtle tension achieved throughout the narrative and by the reader's recognition at the story's end that lengthy as it is it contains nothing extraneous; everything here is significant to our understanding of how and why these people follow the courses they do to their varied destinies. In the way that Maugham's Cakes and Ales leads us a roundabout but always true course to its revelatory last line, Love, Dad leads us to its bitterly funny and revelatory last chapter.
The novel's title is very much part of the story. Jamie Croft, an attractive and talented young man, quintessentially middle-class with an eye toward upward mobility, marries a girl just out of school. She envisions a partnership where each will move into successful careers and, when the logical time comes, will share in the bringing up of a family. She conceives a child almost immediately however, and that, to all intents and purposes, destroys her dream, turns her into a resentful housewife who never forgives her husband for this betrayal and for the huge success he does eventually achieve as a photographer-journalist. Whatever bloom was on the marriage withers away; the pair more or less settle for acting out the roles of husband and wife.
Jamie, however, with a fund of affection to offer, finds an outlet for it in daughter Lissie. Is there a suggestion of incest hereas the girl emerges into her late teens? Hunter touches on this Freudian cliche and wisely moves on, choosing to deal only with what Jamie knows about himself, never mind the inverifiable unconscious. As for golden girl Lissie, we first come to know her in depth and breadth in that troubled year 1968 when she's about to graduate from one of those traditional boarding schools which, rowing hard against the prevailing current, is still trying to maintain some semblance of scholastic and moral standards.
From there on, through alternating views of father and daughter, we watch Jamie more and more futilely struggle to impose on his daughter his concern for her, while Lissie inches her way into the disorderly ranks of what youthful host now raising its psychedelic banners on the far side of the generation gap. The transition from golden girl to hippie, partly accidental, partly willful, is very soon complete, and what Jamie finds himself contending with is a daughter on the verge of maturity who is totally immature, self-righteous, disingenously exploitative and like the company she keeps, stoned more often than not. Sliding out of daddy's reach, she makes the requisite hegira from Amsterdam southeast through Europe and Asia to India, promised land of cheap and plentiful pot and hash, circles back to her homeland -- Jamie's money paying her way -- to take up with male company that brually exploits her, all the while followed by her father's pathetic letters making frightened inquiries, assuring unshakable love.
That love, turned against him, becomes her ultimate weapon in her undeclared war on him; her ultimate triumph comes when Jamie, having at last found the right woman to share life with, divorces his wife, and Lissie can now impale him with the charge that he has cruelly betrayed her mother.
So in wholly human terms we have here a microcosm of a whole period of social history now fast receding into the distance, as Hunter's last chapter sharply reminds us. It all adds up to an exceptionally reward and entertaining novel