Fearless by Rafael Yglesias

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.

My copy came from Open Road Media by way of Netgalley and my Kindle.


Filed under Fiction, Yglesias Rafael

10 responses to “Fearless by Rafael Yglesias

  1. I like the funny tone of this post, despite the subject. I’ve never read anything like this, though I have a vague rememberance of Saint-Exupéry crashing in the Andes.

    “I read this passage and wondered if I would want Max’s knowledge of airline crashes if I were in his shoes….”
    This is like surgery or dentist chair. Some people want to know exactly what the surgeon is doing to fight against their fear and others — like me — expect him/her to do their job in silence not to let their imagination go wild.
    So I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want his knowledge of airline crashes.

    Does this event liberate him from his fear ? You know, I think of that kind of fear you have in you and when the event finally happens, then you can move on.

  2. leroyhunter

    3 things occur to me reading this Guy:

    -just the other day there was a crash at a provincial airport (Cork) in which I think 6 people died and many were injured. A retired pilot trainer was on the radio in the aftermath and made the point that more people die on the world’s roads in 3 months then have died in air crashes since the beginning of the jet age (which I guess to be 1949). Staggering.

    -last year I read an account of a real crash, the one where the aircraft was successfully landed on the Hudson River: Fly By Wire, by William Langewische. Superb. If you have any appetite for Max’s dubious knowledge about crashes, aircraft capabilities, crew preparedness etc then this is the book. The tone of it is what sealed it for me.

    -I remember the scene in Fight Club where the narrator finishes scaring a fellow business class passenger with details of his job (auto accident assessor), leans back, and watches a mid-air collision unfold before his mind’s-eye. Fantastic, terrifying scene. Ed Norton’s character comments “Life insurance pays off double if you die on a business trip.”

    • Leroy:
      I wonder that that statistic. Aren’t more people on the road than in the air? In a car culture people are in their cars at least once a day–whereas how many flights do most people take a year?

      Max knows which are the safer seats/areas in the plane, but then as it turns out all bets are off in some cases.

      The life insurance issue turns up in a rather nasty way in the novel.

      I particularly liked the reactions of Max’s wife. She wants to be reassured and he’s done reassuring people. This illustrates how we often slot into assigned roles in the lives of those around us.

      • leroyhunter

        I think the point was that when you factor in proportionality there is no contest in car vs aircraft safety, based on the numbers of fatalities. The stat was just a gaudy way of illustrating it.

        I remember the film being out but didn’t see it – for some reason I thought Rosie Perez was an odd piece of casting. The book sounds pretty interesting.

        • Perez is a good fit for the character as shown in the book. It’s been years since I’ve seen the film, but I liked the portrayal of the families in the book much more than (my memory) of the film. I just saw Pezez as a crooked copper in Pineapple Express.

  3. This comment came from the author, Rafael Yglesias via the contact e-mail on this site:

    Thanks for you thoughtful post about my novel. I didn’t interview any passengers who were in crashes, but I did read their accounts. To be frank I used my own fearful imaginings and a car crash I was in (the original inspiration for exploring what surviving an expectation you were going to die does to the psyche) as my source for how it would feel during those 20 minutes. I also did a lot of reading about post-traumatic stress and I read The Denial of Death, which was what I was truly after, the extent to which our society tries to behave as if we can control and even somehow avoid dying. (Later 9/11 re-illustrated this to me all over again. The notion that we could somehow stop terrorism — any random event from killing us really — by going to war and so on. If I hadn’t written Fearless I would have wanted to all over again.) I’m rambling. Thanks for the review. — Rafael Yglesias

  4. I would have made a bet that he didn’t speak to survivors but had a similar experience, I wasn’t wrong it seems. I have seen the movie and, like you rather like Jeff Bridges, but wasn’t aware of it being based on a book. It’s a topic that is extremely appealing. Not the crash but the fact to survive something horrible, being one of a few chosen ones, so to speak, and the way our society deals with death and dying. I am always stunned about people who are afraid of flying. I find it so irrational. The very same people sit in cars daily which is by far more dangerous and the possibility of surviving in bad shape is much higher. I remember sitting on planes that were shaking badly and most passengers screeming while I dozed. I would probably lose my cool if I was in a crash.

  5. Fear of flying is utterly irrational, but knowing that doesn’t help.

    I don’t like flying. Like Max (my namesake) I only get scared on take off and landing though as I know that’s when most accidents happen. I tried hang-gliding once and it was the same. I was fine in the air but hated take off and landing.

    For me it’s not that big a deal. I fly regularly and just put up with the fear. My logic overrides my emotional response. On a recent flight I was next to someone so scared that when we came in to land he took his glasses off and leaned his head against the seat in front – partly adopting the crash position. Like me he was only nervous on take off and landing though. That may be more common than one would imagine.

    I remember the film. Oddly at the time I didn’t rate it that highly, but it’s stayed with me when others haven’t suggesting it had more going on than at the time I realised.

    Nice review Guy. I’ll check this one out.

  6. The book (in my opinion) doesn’t cover the families of Max and Carla as well. But I agree, the film did stick, and I suppose that’s why I wanted to read the book

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