BEFORE THE FALL (May 2016 release)
By Noah Hawley
Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Group
* * * ½
How's this for a big opening: eleven people, a doomed flight, two survivors, and an all-night swim. That’s the setup for Noah Hawley’s most recent novel, his fifth.
A private jet sits on a foggy Nantucket runway and impatient David Bateman is about to order the pilot to takeoff as he’s tired of waiting for a late-arriving passenger: Scott Burroughs, an island painter that Bateman’s wife impulsively invited to share their puddle-jump flight to Long Island. Bateman’s not used to waiting; he’s the chief executive of an influential cable news network rather clearly modeled on Fox News. Nor is he accustomed to rubbing elbows with the likes of the shabby Burroughs. In addition to the three-member crew, the only other passengers are Bateman’s wife, his two children, his security guard, and Wall Street high-flyer Ben Kipling and his wife. Burroughs barely makes the flight, but that’s not a good thing—just sixteen minutes later, the plane plunges into Long Island Sound and only Scott and the Bateman’s 4-year-old son J. J. survive; that is if Scott, who is pretty sure his shoulder is broken, can read the fog, guess the right direction to land, avoid sharks, and make the longest swim of his life with J.J. clinging to his back. Okay, this got my attention!
Scott and J.J. do survive, of course, or this book is over in a few pages. What ensues is a nightmare that parallels the crash itself. Burroughs is initially proclaimed a hero, a status he neither feels nor welcomes, but being left alone to contemplate one's fate is not an option in today’s 24-hour thrill parade masquerading as “news.” The more Scott tries to avoid PR, the more slime balls at Bateman’s station grow convinced he’s a phony and that the crash was no accident. That frenzy is whipped to fever pitch by Bill Cunningham, a bloviating shock-jock/mashup of Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Cunningham uses innuendo and character assassination to infer that Burroughs might be the reason the plane crashed, either for twisted personal reasons or because he was in cahoots with enemies of the network.
As it happens, though, the National Transportation Safety Board has questions of its own. Is there a link between the crash and the fact that Kipling was under investigation for stock fraud? Why was there a last-minute switch in co-pilots to Charlie Busch, a ne’er-do-well sheltered by powerful family connections? Was it mere coincidence that shake-ups were on board at the TV network? Why can’t Burroughs recall more about the accident? And, of course, there is the small problem of locating the wreckage, bodies, and flight recorder. What ensues is a beat-the-clock search for the truth with human obstacles in the path.
Before the Fall is a page-turner that will make summer beach reader hearts flutter each time a plane flies overhead. Hawley is best known as the creator of TV’s Fargo and if one is honest, this novel often reads like a screenplay treatment. To add fuel to this, it doesn’t even release until the end of May, yet it’s already been optioned to Sony! A careful reader can see a lot of things long before they are revealed and, as I suggested, many of the characters are more mimetic than fully realized—as if Hawley slapped names onto familiar problem personalities: failed artist reexamining his life, former frat brat trying to rekindle lost popularity, self-serving egoist seeking more glory, socialite pursuing cultural capital, jerks further corrupted by money, women making foolish choices…. At times Hawley is way too obvious. Think the co-pilot’s last name is random?
I suspect none of this will matter for most readers. Hawley may not be a literary stylist, but he knows how to tell a compelling story and how to build suspense. This novel grabs you early and doesn’t release its grip. Readers will be like Burroughs in the midst of his swim: too caught up in the moment to consider what is probable and what isn’t.