Before the Fall

Posted: June 20, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Noah Hawley

9781444779776

On a foggy summer evening a private jet takes off from Martha’s Vineyard to fly to New York. Despite the conditions it’s a routine flight, except that less than twenty minutes in something happens and the plane crashes.

There are only two survivors, one is JJ, the four year old son of the billionaire media mogul who chartered the flight, the other is Scott Burroughs, a down on his luck painter who was only on the plane by pure chance.

Scott becomes an instant hero by swimming to the shore with JJ, however in the aftermath a multitude of questions are asked about the cause of the crash; was it mechanical error or sabotage? Pilot error or an intentional crash? JJ’s father ran a right wing news service, and the channel’s irascible host, Bill Milligan, immediately cries conspiracy. So was JJ’s father the target, or was it the wall street banker who was also on board, a man who’d been laundering money for all manner of rogue states and who’d been on the verge of being arrested by the FBI.

As time passes more and more focus alights on Scott. Was he having an affair with JJ’s mother? Just how did a poor artist end up on such a lavish flight, and is there any connection to the fact that his latest work all feature disasters, including an air crash?

 

I bought this book less on the basis of the blurb on the back than the fact that Noah Hawley is the man responsible for the recent Fargo TV series, a show that’s been truly excellent to watch (at least the first two seasons, the third one has only just started and, if I’m honest, it hasn’t gripped me yet) and so I was drawn to the work of a man who’s clearly already written stuff I liked.

I was disappointed.

The cover announces that this is a thriller, but to be honest it’s not really that thrilling. Don’t get me wrong, the initial crash and Scott’s heroic swim are exceptionally well told, it’s just that after this point the book meanders, occasionally perking up, but too often veering off down side streets—where it parks up for a snooze before heading back onto main street one more.

It would be churlish to suggest Hawley isn’t a good writer, clearly he’s a very good writer, at least in script form (and I have heard people laud his earlier books). The trouble is that Before the Fall is all over the place, with Hawley skipping back and forth between past and present tense, and just when you think the plot is moving forwards he’ll drop back to before the crash and give us a chapter from the point of view of one of the victims. Sometimes there’ll be a potential clue here, but too often there isn’t, and all you’re left with at the end is a bunch of red herrings and loose threads that never got tied up.

And yes I know that’s how real life works sometimes, but a work of fiction should be tighter. For a book that isn’t that long there is an awful lot of padding. Hawley is also exceptionally pretentious, never relying on one simple word when three or four longer words will do, it’s like an exercise in “look how clever I am”, which seems odd given his experience as a script writer where brevity is the order of the day. Maybe this is him throwing off the shackles and deciding to write as many damn words as he wants.

There’s a kernel of an interesting idea here, about how the modern media react to tragedy, and how even a hero can find himself put under the microscope and suddenly be tarnished, the trouble is that idea is buried under tons of turgid prose that serves little purpose other than bumping up the word count.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the characters were anything more than cardboard cut-outs. Scott is a recovering alcoholic/womaniser/failed artist; Bill is an Alex Jones (the mad American one not the lovely Welsh one) style right wing nut. Gus, the lead crash investigator is a man wedded to the job with a failed marriage behind him who will clearly be played by Morgan Freeman in the eventual film…none of these people feel anything more than caricatures (and don’t get me started on the female characters who, in a book filled with two dimensional characters, are especially poorly served).

The book picks up towards the end but then peters out, a damp squib as the cause of the crash is revealed (and you’ll have probably guessed what the cause was long before you get to the end). Lauded as a literary thriller this is actually the kind of book that thinks it’s cleverer than it actually is, or else the reviewer is dumber than he thinks he is, that’s not impossible.

Maybe I’ll give Hawley’s prose another shot one day, but for the moment I think I’ll stick to Fargo.

 

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