Before the Fall | Author: Noah Hawley | Rating: 9.5/11 |
Sixteen minutes after take-off, a private jet drops into the sea during a routine run between Martha’s Vineyard and New York City. Only two of the ten people on board survive: Scott Burroughs, a down-on-his-luck painter and recovering alcoholic, and JJ Bateman, the four-year-old son of a wealthy media tycoon. Scott manages to swim to shore with JJ on his back in spite of his dislocated shoulder, a feat which brings his quiet, solitary life into a sudden maelstrom of public scrutiny. Is Scott a hero, or did he have something to do with the crash? Why was a ‘nobody painter’ catching a ride on a private jet in the company of millionaires? What really happened just before the plane went down? And if Scott really can’t remember, why is he so reluctant to talk about it?
The summer reading season may be drawing to a close, but bibliophiles definitely need to make room for one more pick on their summer reading list. A suspenseful mystery full of beautiful, evocative writing, biting social commentary, and genuine human pathos, Before the Fall is Noah Hawley (award-winning creator of the television show Fargo) at the top of his game.
While the narrative of the plane crash develops in both directions, stretching both forward and into the past, Hawley uses the tragedy as a vehicle to tackle a series of tough existential questions. Does anything really happen for a reason? Where is the fine line between coincidence and causality? What driving forces bring us into contact with the people we encounter in life, and how can one possibly begin to rebuild their shattered lives in the wake of such brutal and senseless tragedy? Hawley also addresses the controversial process by which the media constructs narrative out of fact, and about the growing divide between the struggling middle class and the super-rich. But the overall story is never subsumed by these peripheral concerns. Rather, the issues are integral to the plot, woven beautifully into and around one another as the story progresses. Simultaneously sensitive, insightful, and brutally honest, Hawley’s novel is as much a story about contemporary American culture as it is about a plane crash.
The novel, itself, is long and can feel long at times. But the periods of exposition are rich and relevant, and – most impressively – they create a host of diverse and complex characters. Hawley is an expert at playing with stereotypes (the placid and naive ‘old rich,’ the bombastic nouveau rich, the hipster middle-class, etc.), gifting them with all the expected characteristics while still writing them as emotionally complex individuals. Readers know what to expect from them, and yet they may find themselves surprised at how well they can empathize with them. There are men and women who do good and bad things for a variety of complex reasons, but there are no clear-cut ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’. Each individual has a story, and the complicated and random convergence of these stories is what creates a clear accounting out of a handful of disparate facts.
Suspense fans will obviously enjoy watching this nail-biting mystery unravel to its tragic conclusion, but Before the Fall is the type of book that will appeal to readers of any genre. A powerful contender in this year’s competitive summer market, Hawley’s emotional and compassionate exploration of the fundamental human experience deserves a place on everyone’s 2016 reading list.