The discussion of the outsourcing of airline maintenance has crept into the news lately. Not exactly a reassuring scenario, and it certainly doesn’t encourage me to discard my deep attraction to train travel. Anyway, this seemed like an excellent time to turn to Fearless by Rafael Yglesias–the story of an airline accident and the fallout on the lives of those who survive. If the title sounds familiar, perhaps you’ve seen the 1993 film version featuring Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez. I rather like Jeff Bridges, and his recent subversion of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit reinforces my opinion of him as an actor.
But back to the book….
Of course, since I’d seen the film years ago, I knew–more-or-less–what to expect. An airline crash is not a pleasant subject, and this is not a book you’d want to carry on a plane to read unless you have a sadomasochistic twist or you have a secret desire to get thrown off the plane for tormenting your fellow passengers with the topic.
Fearless begins with business partners, the owners of an architect firm, Max and Jeff flying from Newark, New Jersey to California for a business meeting. Max is terrified of flying. There always seems to be one person like Max on every flight. You can spot them by their nervousness, but Max is unusual for a fearful flyer as he’s delved into the subject of airline disasters:
Thanks to his morbid study of air disasters he allowed himself to be panicked only during takeoff and landing. That psychological bargain was the best he could do to master his fear of flying.
But forty-two minutes into the flight, there’s “a dulled and yet definite explosion.” Things don’t immediately go wrong, but then the plane drops from the sky. There is a crash of course, but for the passengers strange things happen to their sensation of time in the approximately twenty-minute period from the first boom until the crash. Some things are etched in the memories of the survivors while other events are obscure or surreal. The terror felt by the passengers is visceral. Reading the book, gave me the sensation that I was watching the event–helpless to stop the plane’s horrific descent.
It really is a stroke of brilliance of the part of the author that he creates Max as a character with a strong flight phobia. Max has spent a considerable time dwelling on accident reports as if he wanted to face and understand his fears. Now in the middle of an imminent crash, all his past reading has made him an informed participant. While other passengers don’t understand what is happening, Max grasps every detail:
The plane found a ramp in the air and swooped up it, levelling. They were much lower, perhaps no more than ten thousand feet off the ground; Max didn’t know, he was guessing. He noticed that the right wing dipped and then rose abruptly, without the usual smooth sway. Instead the plane jerked like a drunkard stumbling on his way home, landing heavily on each foot, threatening to topple over, rescued only by an equally precarious tilt the opposite way. Max peered at the wings and saw the flaps were up. They had been in that position before the roll, and after it, and again before the sudden drop. They hadn’t moved. Their immobility probably wasn’t a choice made by the captain, more likely he had no control over them. If so, Max had read that meant they would eventually crash. He had read about the safety backups: everything was supposedly designed to prevent such a catastrophic failure. If somehow the impossible had occurred and the captain couldn’t steer, then they were doomed.
I read this passage and wondered if I would want Max’s knowledge of airline crashes if I were in his shoes….
There’s some irony to Max’s position. When he booked the flight, always nervous about flying and armed with research about plane crashes, he’d checked to see what sort of plane he and Jeff would be flying on:
Aware of the DC-10’s history of death, Max boarded this one only after losing a fight against doing so. Max, as usual, had been careful to phone ahead to find out what model plane was scheduled. He had been told their flight was on an L-1011. At the check-in counter (always making sure, always cautious) he casually asked again and was terrified the instant the agent said that the equipment for their flight had been changed from the safe L-1011 to this, the DC-10 deathtrap. Pulling at Jeff’s arm and whispering shyly, like a little kid coaxing a parent, Max argued to Jeff that they should wait for a later flight.
As the plane’s rapid uncontrolled descent continues, Max experiences a range of emotions: fear, of course, and then a peevish sort of glee that he was right about the plane. This is followed by a strange serenity as he lets go of his fear. If you’ve ever experienced this sort of sensation, then you never forget it, and the author captures Max’s state of mind perfectly.
I don’t think I’m giving away too much here, but a crash does occur, and Max becomes a hero of sorts known as the “Good Samaritan.” Max denies that he earned this title, and the novel’s surreal crash scenes leave some details deliberately vague. Following the crash, Max returns home, but he’s not the same Max. He’s survived and now “fearless” as the title implies. He strikes up relationships with two fellow survivors–a precocious child named Byron, and a young woman named Carla. He also becomes part of a lawsuit against the airlines, and this involves remembering the details of an event he’d rather forget.
Fearless presents a narrative challenge as the common presentation of events is inverted. Usually when the subject is disaster, the plot often builds up to the catastrophe with the denouement of who survived and who didn’t. It’s neither the fault of the novel nor the fault of the author that the sections of the novel that detail the crash are the most intense parts, but by the time the crash is over, I found myself committed to following Max’s actions as he begins acting rather bizarrely and has little patience with the emotional demands of his family.
Given the intensity of the descriptions–how the passengers felt, and the sensations they experienced (at one point the floor seems to give way), I have to conclude that the author, Rafael Yglesias must have interviewed survivors or at the very least read survivor accounts in order to convey the intensity of the minutes before the crash and then the lifetime of emotions that remain.