“Because what if instead of a story told in consecutive order, life is a cacophony of moments we never leave? What if the most traumatic or the most beautiful experiences we have trap us in a kind of feedback loop, where at least some part of our minds remains obsessed, even as our bodies move on?”
It’s evening in late August when a private plane leaves Martha’s Vineyard for New York with 3 crew members and 8 passengers aboard. It should be a simple, short journey, but sixteen minutes into the flight, the plane crashes into the sea. Miraculously, the last minute passenger, Scott Burroughs, a failed painter who’s managed to overcome his drinking problem and is finally producing good, although deeply disturbing work, survives the crash. He swims ashore with the only other survivor–a four-year-old boy.
Noah Hawley’s powerful novel, Before the Fall looks at the aftermath of the crash. The plane carried some important passengers: the head of ALC media, multi-millionaire David Bateman, his wife Maggie, and their two children, Rachel and JJ. Also aboard was Ben Kipling, a partner at one of the largest Wall Street investment firms, and his wife, Sarah. Bateman and Kipling are two of the most powerful, wealthiest figures in New York, and the fact that they both die in the same crash, with Kipling about to be arrested for illegal trading sends the media into a feeding frenzy.
Leading the charge for the media is Bateman’s ALC News. Bateman formed the 24 hour news station with the intention of “shaping the events of the day to fit the message of the network.” Morally unscrupulous Bill Cunningham is ALC’s rabid watchdog “an angry white guy with a withering wit.” Cunningham is ready to do whatever it takes to dig up the dirt he’s convinced will be found as the cause of the accident. He’s ready to exploit his relationship with the four-year old who survives the crash, and he’s happy to stir trouble between the boy’s aunt and her money-grubbing loser of a husband. Soon conspiracy theories about the downed plane morph into a sex scandal as Cunningham pulls out all the stops to create the story of the plane crash he wants to hear.
Cunningham was David’s gift to the world, the angry white man people invited into their living rooms to call bullshit at the world, to rail against a system that robbed us of everything we felt we deserved–the third-world countries that were taking our jobs. The politicians who were raising our taxes. Bill Cunningham, Mr. Straight Talk, Mr.Divine Righteousness, who sat in our living rooms and shared our pain, who told us what we wanted to hear, which was that the reason we were losing out on life was not that we were losers, but that someone was reaching into our pockets, our companies, our country and taking what was rightfully ours.
Bill Cunningham was the voice of ALC News and he had gone insane. He was Kurtz in the jungle
Chapters go back and forth between the current investigation of the crash and the poignant back stories of the crew and passengers who died on the plane. Each chapter becomes part of the puzzle that will solve the mystery of the crash. No one is irrelevant here–from the pilot, to the security guard for the Bateman family, to the troubled, yet sadly-resolved Sarah Kipling–all these stores matter.
Scott Burroughs, whose Disaster Art labels him a suspect in the eyes of the media and the FBI works with Gus Franklin from the National Transportation Safety Board to try to piece together the mystery of just what went wrong on the flight. Scott, with shredded memories of the crash, emerges from the plane disaster as a hero, but instead of embracing this fame, Scott, still traumatized by the crash, makes the ‘error’ of disregarding the media. He becomes a ‘mystery man’ with something to hide, and once the media gets its teeth into his troubled private life, Scott’s existence becomes a nightmare. In the eyes of the media, Scott morphs from hero to “notorious womanizer and recovering alcoholic, a struggling artist who’s never been able to keep a single lasting relationship.” And while that may all be true, it should be irrelevant. But when news is presented as a highly salacious gossip mag, sensation and speculation sell more seats than the truth.
Before the Fall is a sensitively written, beautifully constructed, moral powerhouse of a novel. The subject matter, grabbed from today’s headlines, is presented as a gripping story which examines fate, human nature and media hype. Scott Burroughs is an amazing, yet credible creation, and while the media viciously decries Scott and questions the crash, Scott’s backstory: inspiration by Jack LaLanne, reinvigoration for a damaged life through swimming, and the private tragedy that haunts his art, all piece together to place this man logically in the story. The scenes between the media, Cunningham and Scott are brilliant. Scott, an unlikely hero but a moral human being, comes across as a more intelligent, unstoned version of Jeff Bridges’s portrayal of ‘The Dude’ in The Big Lebowksi.
Author Noah Hawley is the creator of the television series Fargo. Someone rush and grab the film rights.