Before The Fall by Noah Hawley
A plane crash is a rare and terrible thing. Terrible because we don't expect them with the level of safety in aircraft these days and because flying is something that seems so unnatural to most. While I could explain the physics of flight, learned from a lifetime in the industry, needless to say, evening knowing how it all works, it still feels like magic. When a plane falls from the sky, it is a violent reassertion of gravity, of which, there is little escape. We hope that it is quick and the people on board know very little, but we rarely know much about the lives of those on board. When it is a small aircraft, those on board come under much closer scrutiny as, if it is an executive jet, they tend to be rather well off. This is the premise of Noah Hawley's latest novel, Before The Fall.
It is the end of the summer on Martha's Vineyard and the great and powerful of New York's society are heading back to the city to continue doing what they do; do deals, control opinion and all from the gilded cages they have fought to create for themselves. The small jet has been ordered up by the CEO of a Fox News style network, David Bateman, to take his wife, kids and bodyguard home. Joining him is an investment banker, Ben Kipling and his wife Sarah. An artist, Scott Burroughs, who had befriended Bateman's wife, Maggie, on the Vineyard and is offered a lift back to New York where his career may be getting a boost due to a new direction he's taken. With a crew of three, the plane takes off and 16 minutes later, it disappears. Hours later, Burrows and Bateman's son, JJ, crawl out of the sea after Burrows has swum them to safety. What happened to cause the crash is basis for the book and Hawley dances between the investigation, centring on Burrows, who cannot remember what happened and why only the nobody on the flight and one of the children survived. Various viewpoints are taken in the present to explain why the head of an influential news channel and a possibly dodgy investment banker are now dead . Their families seem to provide only colour. Hawley then uses flashback to show us who the deceased where, for better and worse. Bateman, Kippling and Burrows naturally get the lion's share of the narrative, but everyone on board gets backstory. The decisions that brought a Replication political operative and a Liberal school teacher together, who the banker was and who's money he was playing with, what drives an artist and who the crew and bodyguard where. It is a brilliant, thrilling, read, with one glaring issue; none of the people on board are in the least bit likeable.
Hawley gives the passengers a healthy life in the flashbacks, of the survivors, the kid is rather ignored and Burrows takes everything. As is the case with most "literary novels" these days, the trend is to make the characters "difficult". In my case, I only felt for the kids on the plane and perhaps the Captain and hostie. Other than that, all the people in the story are not ones I would wish to spend any time with. But, this is where Hawley's skill as a writer comes in, you keep turning the pages despite the lack of remorse at their fate to be able to see what caused the fall. Hawley does bowl a poorly disguised googly in referring to a real air-crash but this does not distract from the fact that whole tale is riveting. While the structure of the novel is highly episodic, which I suppose was in design for the inevitable TV adaptation (Halwey is creator and show-runner for FX's Fargo), Before The Fall is a highly gripping read and one of the better novels I've read this year.