Book Review : Noah Hawley - Before the Fall (2016)
The success of Fargo ennobled its creator Noah Hawley in popular culture. He became an overnight sensation and a de facto replacement to Dennis Lehane, a writer who never quite lived up to the first decade of his career. There was a lot to Hawley before the success of Fargo, though. He wrote episodes of Bones and My Generation and published four novels. Writers who do novels and television are few and far between. The majority of them prefer focusing on the latter because it's where the money is. Something about that quirk screamed "integrity" to me, so I bought Noah Hawley's fifth novel (released after Fargo) Before the Fall and investigated that investigated that Hawley thing a little further. The results were...surprising, to say the least.
So, Before the Fall begins with a plane crash between Martha's Vineyard and New York. Nine people die, members of two families who are part of the American elite and two people miraculously survive. A mysterious painter named Scott Burroughs who seemingly shouldn't have been on the flight and the infant son of television executive David Bateman. Burroughs miraculously swims for miles with the boy in row before washing up in Montauk and saving both of their lives. What the fuck happened exactly on that fateful night? Before the Fall examines the prior lives of every character on that flight, looking for meaning in this tragedy while Scott is trying to survive a traumatic event that shattered his perception of himself.
The first fifty pages of Before the Fall are fucking glorious.
They depict the heroic drive of an ordinary man caught in a life-or-death situation. What makes it different than other passages of the same nature is the flashback scene in chapter one where an infant Scott Burroughs witnesses iconic strongman Jack LaLanne pull a boat from Alcatraz Island to the San Francisco bay. This coincidental memory takes an entire new meaning when his plane crashes in the Atlantic ocean, enabling him to believe he could swim his way to the shore. Scott Burroughs is heroic because he believes he was destined to save this young boy, not because he had the constitution or the innate temperament to do it. He's relatable because he's having an existential epiphany in the middle of the Atlantic.
Before the Fall keeps going back and forth between the flight passenger's prior life and Scott Burroughs' present and whenever it stays with the latter, it ranges from good to great. The media's reappropriation of tragedy really is the central theme of this novel. The title refers not only to "what happened before the fall" but also to "what life was" before the plane crashed into the ocean. The incident completely shatters Burroughs' sense of self. And ALC, Noah Hawley's stand-in for Fox News in Before the Fall, is reappropriating the events and casting him at the opportunistic loser before he can even collect himself. My favorite thing about this novel definitely was Scott Burroughs' struggle for self-definition in the face of such unwarranted adversity. The media needs someone to hate for this senseless tragedy and Scott refuses to bend over and let them have their way.
I know what you're thinking, though. What about that goddamn plane crash, right? What happened there? Weeeellll....this is where Before the Fall starts coming undone a little bit. I mean, the "investigation" of the victims' prior life is compelling and gorgeously written, but it becomes apparent after a while that Noah Hawley is going after every passenger's backstory for the sake of it and by the time you've reached half it becomes apparent it's not going to lead anywhere. This could've been done "investigation style" by one of the detective characters and followed some sort of logic, but it's not the case. The mystery of Before the Fall is kind of full of air in that regard. It's gorgeous and eloquent, but it doesn't really have a purpose. It's inspired by real-life events that may not have had the necessary fodder for a 400 pages novel.
So, Before the Fall is a pretty good novel but it might've benefited from Noah Hawley's reputation a little bit. It's gripping and sophisticated, but it's not as great as it was made out to be. Especially not the mystery aspect, which is...you know....not an afterthought in the novel. The Scott Burroughs' chapters were half and the "investigative" chapters, if you can call them that, are the other. And they're quite dissonant to be honest. It's like reading two different novels at once. I've enjoyed Before the Fall but felt it was more of a talent showcase than anything else for Noah Hawley. There's a lot of great writing to it, but the piece don't amount to something greater than themselves. For fans of Fargo primarily, but it was written enough that I might check out some of his earlier work.