Saturday, March 5, 2016

Book Review: "Before the Fall" by Noah Hawley

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Grand Central Publishing for making it available!

It's an evening in late August, a little foggy but otherwise uneventful. On Martha's Vineyard, the private plane belonging to David Bateman, the power behind one of the country's major cable news networks, is scheduled to take off and head back to New York. David and his wife Maggie, and their two young children, nine-year-old Rachel and four-year-old JJ, are ready to head home, and their friends Sarah and Ben Kipling are joining them on the flight. Maggie has also invited Scott Burroughs, a painter that she has befriended on their many visits to the Vineyard.

Scott arrives late, just as the plane was preparing to take off, so he tries to relax. There's music playing, and David and Ben are watching the Boston Red Sox game. Small talk is exchanged, and the flight attendant offers everyone a beverage. And then, inexplicably, 16 minutes after takeoff, the plane plunges into the ocean.

Scott regains consciousness in the ocean and begins to realize what has happened. As he tries to find other survivors of the crash, he hears the cries of JJ, apparently the only other person left alive. Despite a shoulder injury, Scott, once a championship swimmer inspired by the legendary Jack LaLanne's swim from Alcatraz when Scott was a boy, swims with JJ nearly 10 miles to shore.

As the authorities try to figure out what caused the crash, details are uncovered and theories begin to emerge. Was the plane brought down by someone determined to may David pay for his network's manipulating of popular opinion via the news it broadcasts? Were there other reasons for sabotage, perhaps related to one of the other passengers on board? Were the flight crew trustworthy?

Of course, the person in the most blinding spotlight is Scott. While his heroism is heralded, it's also questioned, suspected. How did he wind up on the plane that night? What was his relationship with Maggie? How is he the only adult survivor from a plane full of important people? The media circles, leaving no stone unturned, questioning everything in his past, even the pictures he has painted. And as Scott reaches out to JJ given the bond they shared, there are some suspecting nefarious elements there, too.

Before the Fall is a book that doesn't know what it wants to be. Is it a meditation on the fragility of life, the simplicity of luck, and the unconscious act of a hero? Is it a look at how quickly one's life can change, and the beauty of a simple bond between a man and a young child? Is it a portrait of our media-obsessed society, where in an effort to be first to break a story, the media broadcasts what it knows and then makes up what it doesn't, crafting facts to fit the theories they want to espouse? Or is it a thriller, as the authorities (of course, not without the usual pissing match between branches of the government) try to figure out what really did happen on the plane that night?

Noah Hawley tries to make this book all of those things, which means it doesn't quite succeed on any of those fronts. It is beautifully written, and Scott is a fascinating character. If the book had concentrated on him and his life following the crash, and how JJ and those around him dealt with the aftermath, I think this would have been stronger and more appealing, at least for me. But the book gets bogged down in looking at the lives of each of the other passengers and crew on board that night, and what brought them to that moment, and then the zealous media coverage of the crash and the suspicions being levied against Scott (particularly by a corrupt anchor on David's network), and it really frustrated me.

Since Hawley is the executive producer, writer, and showrunner for the television series Fargo, this book is getting a lot of attention, and is even being hyped as "the thriller of the year." I'd nominate several other books I've read so far this year for that honor (particularly Gregg Hurwitz's Orphan X), but despite the fact I think Before the Fall suffered from a bit of an identity crisis, it's definitely a worthwhile, compelling read.

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