June 2016 – Before The Fall by Noah Hawley
Blog by Cindy Bushey
Most airline passengers have probably experienced fleeting what ifs at some point in their journeys. What if the airplane is hijacked. . . what if we crash. . . what if we crash in the ocean? Thankfully, statistics show that air travel is comparatively safer than automobiles, so most of us can bury those fears and enjoy our trips. A small percentage avail themselves of tranquilizers or other stress reducers to cope; others simply refuse to use that method of travel. However, there remains the smallest percentage who will face such an event, and the infinitesimal number of those who survive it. Which brings us to the main character in Zion’s Readers’ June selection Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. Scott Burroughs is in his forties, a painter who has failed to gain the professional recognition he thought would come easily, drank himself into oblivion to forget, and only recently found the strength and personal courage to ditch the alcohol crutch and return to a healthy lifestyle. His honesty with himself has extended to his canvas, and he now has thematic paintings that are beginning to command interest. Living frugally on Martha’s Vineyard, he nonetheless interacts with wealthier vacationers and meets Maggie. The wife of a wealthy businessman with two young children, she shows an interest in his art and invites him to join them, their security team, and another couple on their private plane for the short hop from the Vineyard to New York City where Scott has lined up appointments with galleries. He accepts, manages to almost miss the flight, but finally arrives. The plane takes off into a fog bank and drops off the radar about 15 minutes later.
What makes our life paths take the turns they do? How do the choices you make and the choices others make conspire to have you run into each other one day? Is the universe random? Is it serendipity? Author Noah Hawley explores these questions. When the plane went down and Scott surfaced to find himself floating among debris in the middle of the ocean, it did not seem particularly serendipitous; however, when Maggie’s young son, JJ, started to cry and Scott was able with an injured shoulder to orient and navigate them to shore thanks to his recently attained former college swimming form, it certainly seemed like there was a reason for his life path and choices. Unfortunately, no other passengers or crew survived. Wealth and position mattered not; the accident was a great equalizer. The author introduced the readers to all the passengers and crew, their choices and motives, their thoughts and feelings. All were searching for something, from the children looking for parental attention, to Maggie looking for meaning underneath all the wealth, to Maggie’s husband, David, building an entertainment company with 24 hours “news”, to friend Ben Kipling, a senior partner in a giant financial firm making money by laundering others’, to the flight attendant wanting closer relationships, to the co-pilot wanting the flight attendant to fill his inadequacies. All their paths converged on that one plane at that one minute when one of them decided to take all of them to oblivion.
But while Scott and JJ are dealing with death, life, and the existential, the real world intrudes with 24-hour news, badgering, incivility, and conspiracy theories. Scott sidesteps the limelight while he wrestles with why he survived and what he wants to do with the rest of his life. JJ retreats into silence at his aunt’s house, and only seems to respond to Scott. Meanwhile, Scott’s heroic actions have been coated with slimy motives by an unsavory talking head (many readers immediately saw a resemblance to a certain news show host recently canned by his network) who is firing up his show’s ratings at the expense of Scott’s reputation. Scott’s paintings are said to be a precursor of the crash. Seeds of his complicity are sowed. How will it all end?
While some of Zion’s Readers were annoyed by the author switching back and forth in time for each chapter, some felt it added to their reading experience and all felt this book was a compelling read. Some of us were more engaged while Scott and JJ were in the water, but all persisted to the conclusion. The author used actual events as inspiration for some of his characters, most notably Scott – he was inspired to swim competitively at a very young age after having seen Jack LaLanne tow a boat while swimming. (And yes, to make some of our senior members feel their ages, some younger members had no idea Jack LaLanne was an actual person!) Perhaps Mr. Hawley took some of his own inspiration for the story from current events such as an air disaster where a crew member took the plane into a fatal dive, and the emergency landing of a plane in the Hudson river a few years ago where the courageous Captain Sully went from hero to sporting a dented halo thanks to reporters spinning facts to accommodate an alternative reality before that term became common.
Whatever the inspiration behind the book, our readers found the main characters believable; we could have met them on the street and had our lives intersect as indeed they did while we read. Perhaps Scott’s ability to survive a plane crash, swim 10 miles with a bum shoulder towing a child, and get them both through a rogue wave to shore tested our credibility limits. However, when the author pointed out the plane’s short flight and crash coincided with the record breaking at-bat of a major league baseball player almost to the minute, a frisson of anxiety was probably running down spines. At any given moment, while someone is experiencing a high point in a life, another someone somewhere is experiencing a low point. Can we ever have a totally awesome life event again without giving a passing prayer for a person at the other end of the spectrum? If not, what a testament to the impact of a novel and an author’s way with words!
Speaking of words, some descriptive passages are exceedingly so. While this technique can work – he effectively describes the extreme wealth for the top 1%, the life and perks of which we found obscene – at times, Mr. Hawley belabored a point. Our readers understood that the characters were looking for something; it was not necessary to repeat it again and again in various forms. While believable, some of the many characters (at times, the book felt very full of people) were a bit stock – Doug, JJ’s uncle, had “virtuously no virtues” as one reader put it, and Eleanor, JJ’s aunt, was rather wimpy at first until she grew a little backbone and became more sympathetic. The romantic interest involving the flight attendant seemed a regular component of most novels – wasn’t there a saying about “always killing the one you love” or, as a reader said, statistically when someone’s murdered most often it’s by someone they slept with! As the plot twisted and turned, we kept waiting for one more zinger (as one reader said) and were let down when suddenly the author stopped. It felt crazily abrupt! Did his agent say time’s up? There’s no more money so stop writing? Things were not finished; story lines were not resolved. We did not get to see the reprehensible talking head get his comeuppance or know exactly where Scott was headed with his life.
So, naturally, our readers began their own speculation and formed theories. Was there a sequel planned? One reader noticed the date of the bodyguard’s death (the chapter headings for each person had their birth and death dates) was three days different from all the other victims. What was up with that? Nowhere did the author say the bodyguard survived, and it did not seem like an editing mistake that would have gone unnoticed. We reached no conclusions but from our vote (1 neutral, 1 half a knuckle, 11 one thumbs up and 1 two thumbs up) determined that most of us thoroughly enjoyed the book and would read another by Mr. Hawley who has an impressive pedigree, counting an Emmy, Golden Globe, PEN, Critic’s Choice, and Peabody among his many awards. He is the executive producer, writer, and showrunner for television’s FX series Fargo.
Thus, another enjoyable season of reading comes to an end for Zion’s Readers. This last book discussion coincided with a wonderful picnic (thanks Tony & Gina for the hospitality) containing oodles of good food (thanks to all the cooks, particularly Sally and Dave for the trash can supper), good weather (thanks Mother Nature, as it was storming a half hour before the picnic), and good conversation – all good reasons for new readers to join us next season! We begin in September; look for updates in the church bulletin.