“Flying. They are flying. And as they rise up through the foggy white, talking and laughing, serenaded by songs of 1950s crooners and the white noise of the long at bat, none of them has any idea that sixteen minutes from now their plane will crash into the sea.”
This is the chilling launch into the story of “Before the Fall” by Noah Hawley. This is a book about the crash of a private jet, about the process of its investigation, about the ensuing swirling media coverage and suspicions, about its victims (including two high profile executives and their wives, and the flight crew), and two survivors: a 4 year old boy and an artist named Scott Burroughs.
The story is largely told through Scott Burroughs’ perspective, and is as much about his journey as a fledgling artist trying to find his way as it is about the crash. The book also systematically tells the story of each person on the plane, with chapters interspersed throughout the book dedicated to each character. As you read about each person, about their friends and possible enemies, you are mentally questioning if they had knowledge of what caused the crash, or if they were a cause or accessory to the crash. Hawley doesn’t directly answer any questions, but lets the suspense build.
What I loved about the book:
One of Scott Burroughs’ main inspirations in his life is Jack Lalanne, the fitness legend. As a child, Burroughs’ witnessed one of Lalanne’s physical feats, and it left an indelible mark for
Mid-life, after years of partying and drifting , Burroughs made a 180 degree change:
“For the next six months he swam three miles a day. He threw away the booze and the cigarettes. He cut out red meat and dessert. He bought canvas after canvas, covering every available surface with an expectant white primer. He was a boxer training for a fight, a cellist practicing for a concert. His body was his instrument, battered like Johnny Cash’s guitar, splintered and raw, but he was going to turn it into a Stradivarius.
“… Once again the only thing that mattered was the work, except now he realized that the work was him. There is no separating yourself from the things you make, he thought. If you are a cesspool, what else can your work be except [garbage]?”
Not only was Burroughs preparing for the next phase of his career as an artist, he was also building the physical and mental strength he would need for the crash.
This was a thread that I absolutely loved about the book, because it’s so profound. Our work will not be better than who we are and the choices we make. When we make the right, hard choices and live in our integrity, we may unknowingly be preparing for a future mission God has for us.
You can tell that Hawley is a thinker about the bigger picture in life and likes to bring that into his stories. I really liked his writing style. Simple, straightforward, and at times beautifully descriptive (to a purpose) and deep. Another favorite excerpt – here, Maggie Bateman, one of the executive’s wives, is at a farmers market:
“She wandered past English cucumbers and baskets of loose-leaf lettuces….She peeled back the rough husks of summer corn, her fingers hungry to feel the yellow silk below, lost in an illusion. Here on the Vineyard, at the farmers market, at this precise spot, in this moment in time, the modern world vanished, the unspoken division of our silent class wars. There was no rich, or poor, no privilege, there was only food tugged from the loamy earth, fruit plucked from sturdy branches, and honey stolen from the beehive bush. We are all equal in the face of nature, she thought – which was, in and of itself, an idea born of luxury.”
What I didn’t like:
One of the main characters in the book is a brass tacks news media celebrity. There is a lot of alpha-male dialogue surrounding this character, which includes frequent mention of a certain part of the male anatomy and lots of language. It was more tiresome than entertaining for me.
But most of all, I didn’t like the ending. It felt like a quick eject out of the story and it could have been so much richer, especially given Hawley’s talent for bringing out what’s below the surface in people’s lives and thoughts.
Overall, this was an enjoyable read. I’ll join others and recommend reading it when both your feet are solidly on the ground, and nowhere near an aircraft!
For my reading enjoyment, I’d give the book 3.5 stars
Objective rating: 4 stars