Before the Fall: A Novel by Noah Hawley (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016. 400 pp)
Noah Hawley is an Emmy, Golden Globe, PEN, Critics’ Choice, and Peabody Award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. He has published four novels and penned the script for the feature film, Lies and Alibis. He created, executive produced, and served as showrunner for ABC’s My Generation and The Unusuals and was a writer and producer for the hit series, Bones. Hawley is currently executive producer, writer, and showrunner on FX’s award-winning series, Fargo.
I fear flying. While recognizing its irrationality, I can’t help but experience a quickening heartbeat and increased perspiration as a flight approaches take off. I know how safe such an action is, statistically, but my instincts betray my rational mind. Whether an heir to a trait in my gene pool, or the product of some scare (I must have watched an air disaster story at some point when I was too young to know better), I can’t help how I feel. In fact, I’ve wanted to read Before the Fall by Noah Hawley since its release, but I’ve been concerned about reading it around any travels I might encounter. Enough so, that I released a sad sigh when I discovered the receipt in the used copy of this book, purchased at an airport. Who, in their right mind, would read the synopsis of this book on the dust jacket, and decide that such a narrative provides perfect reading material for a flight? Even more, who decided it was a profitable business decision to stock a book outlining an airplane crash in an airport? Crazy.
As for me, my lack of recent travel and the start of a new season of Fargo, for which Noah Hawley acts as showrunner, encouraged me to crack open the book.
After the Fall
Before the Fall illustrates the heroic narrative of Scott Burroughs, middling, middle-aged painter. Through sheer luck (both positive and negative), Scott receives an invitation to fly private from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City. Having struck up a friendship with Maggie Bateman, wife of a wealthy news mogul, Scott earns the opportunity to fly in style to the city, where he has scheduled a series of meetings to showcase his latest work, highlighting various disaster scenes.
The Bateman’s—husband (David), aforementioned wife, and two young children—charter flights between their vacation home and their Manhattan brownstone. A private jet staffed with ex-military pilots and stunning stewardesses, offers luxurious travel. Artist and Bateman’s aside, the jet also houses Ben and Sarah Kipling. The Kiplings operate in the Bateman’s social circle, even though Ben faces criminal investigation through the questionable investments in which his firm engages.
Unfortunately, Hawley’s story begins in catastrophe. 16 minutes after takeoff, this plane crashes into the Atlantic, ending the lives of everyone outside of Scott and the youngest Bateman, J.J., the son. Swimming miles to reach shore, Scott saves the young boy and faces the adulation and criticism of the 24-hour news cycle, especially from David Bateman’s own network, a stand-in for Fox News, and Bill Cunningham, an extreme cross between Piers Morgan and Bill O’Rielly.
The core of Before the Fall explores the connection this disaster creates between Scott and the young boy, juxtaposed against the invasive news cycle attempting to create meaning—and more importantly ratings—around this catastrophe.
Before the Fall
Cut between this current narrative, Hawley inserts background stories on each of the deceased individuals, mapping out the web of relationships, lies, and dramatic tensions that connect these random people together, and ultimately bring down the plane.
Unfortunately, these cuts never quite work. As a reader, I kept yearning for and devouring the present-day narrative while forcing my way through the backdrop. This style, while certainly popular these days, creates ample opportunity for the reader to lose steam when one narrative thread drags as opposed to the others.
Likewise, the story ultimately felt derivative. With narrative elements pulled from the headlines to bolster the story, Before the Fall feels surface level. The observations around the cruelty of the 24-hour news cycle aren’t new and the depth of character beneath the mystery lacks. Hawley is a good writer, engaging and entertaining, but this material feels like a B. If you want peak-Hawley, go to your television and check out Legion or Fargo.
Verdict: 3 out of 5