Before the Fall by Noah Hawley: A review

Before the FallBefore the Fall by Noah Hawley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Noah Hawley. Now, why did that name seem so familiar? Google had the answer, of course. He's the writer/producer/showrunner of the wonderful FX series, Fargo, which I have thoroughly enjoyed now for two seasons. Who knew that he was also a novelist?

Well, maybe you did, but I didn't.

Before the Fall is, apparently, his fifth book and it is a winner, maybe even one of those summer reading blockbusters that happen every so often. It has a compelling plot, interesting characters, and is the essence of a page-turning thriller.

The story is this: One August night in 2015, a private plane takes off from Martha's Vineyard, carrying eleven people; the head of a major cable news network (obviously based on Fox News) and his wife, daughter and young son; his friend, a soon-to-be indicted business executive/dirty money launderer and his wife; the "body man" security guard of the TV executive's family; the pilot, co-pilot, and a flight attendant; and a last minute addition to the passenger list, a failed middle-aged painter named Scott Burroughs who may now actually be on the brink of success and fame. Only eighteen minutes into its flight, the plane, which had been serviced and checked only the day before, crashes into the Atlantic.

In the dark sea, one passenger surfaces among flames and wreckage. Scott Burroughs has survived the initial disaster, but for how long? How far is he from shore and which way is that? Can he swim for it or will he die of hypothermia? He tries to orient himself.

Then, among the debris, he hears a child crying. He tries to locate the direction of the sound and swims toward it and finds the only other survivor - the four-year-old son of the television executive and his wife.

Scott takes the boy onto his back. At some point, the clouds clear enough for him to see the stars and he is able to determine the direction of the shore and he starts to swim toward it, even though one of his shoulders is dislocated.

We learn that bodies of water have played large roles in Scott's life. His beloved sister drowned in the cold waters of Lake Michigan. He remembers that when he was a boy, one of his heroes was the bodybuilder Jack LaLanne, and that he had once watched on television as LaLanne pulled a boat through the waters from Acatraz to the California shore. After that, he was inspired to become a long distance swimmer himself, and although for many years he had not practiced those skills, recently, he has tried to get back into shape and again become a swimmer. He calls on that muscle memory as he struggles to pull himself and the child to shore.

On one level, this book is about that crash and the struggle to survive, but it quickly moves into larger issues that seem to be an inevitable part of modern catastrophes as seen through the lens of the 24/7 cable news media's way of covering such events; namely sensationalizing the situation, drawing false conclusions, and hounding the victims. Thus, Scott Burroughs, initially hailed as a hero for his actions, is soon being demonized by a Bill O'Reilly type on the cable news network of the deceased TV executive as a philanderer who was probably having an affair with the executive's wife and who may have been responsible for the plane's crash. Or maybe he was a terrorist, radicalized by ISIS. We speculate, you decide.

Things begin to spiral out of control as investigators continue to try to meticulously piece together the truth of what happened and to recover the bodies, but, of course, cable news has already created its "truth" and has no patience to wait for the facts.

The construction of this story, as we slowly get the backstories of all of the passengers and crew and the chief investigator of the crash, builds the suspense brilliantly. It certainly made me eager to turn the page to see what happened next and made it very hard for me to put the book down.

The only negative thing that I have to say about the book is that the ending was maybe a little too pat and not entirely satisfactory, although it is certainly an ending that I think most of us, probably including the author, would wish for a cable news personality whose game is making a blood sport of other people's tragedies. But that is a very minor quibble. If you are looking for a fast-paced summer read that might also make you think about our modern society, this just might be your cup of tea.

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  1. I keep seeing this title as a hot summer read. Thanks to you, I know what it is about! A word about endings of books: it seems to be a hard thing to do well. I have come across it many times. I don't envy an author trying to come up with a good ending. Sometimes I wonder how much an editor was involved.

    1. I couldn't agree more. I think it is fairly uncommon to find a book that has an ending that is totally satisfactory.

  2. This book is popping up everywhere lately. It seems like an entertaining page-turner. That you loved it, suggests it is very good.

  3. Get it. Read it. You will love it. Well done, Noah Hawley. I hope he is not insulted if I call it a perfect summer read. It is much more than that, of course. I am a former TV journalist, and I happily cringed at the portrayal of the media. The book, in fact, indicts the media's tendency to barge in on sensitive issues and destroy whatever stands in its way.

    1. Yes, I thought the portrayal of the media, particularly television media, was especially acute.


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