A private plane carrying eleven people crashes in the Atlantic. The only two survivors are Scott Burroughs, a mostly has-been painter, and a four year old boy, the son of a Rupert Murdoch-type media mogul named David Bateman who founded an analog of Fox News. Burroughs swam the several miles to shore while towing the boy and as a result is now a celebrity of sorts. But his celebrity status is wholly unwelcome, as he’s hounded by reporters and his every move is monitored. Soon, perhaps inevitably, he’s targeted by a “journalist” who works at the right-wing television station and begins to insinuate that Burroughs had something to do with the crash.
Before the Fall follows each of the victims of the plane crash in the years, months, and days preceding the accident. They include each member of the Bateman family (David, his wife, his nine year old daughter, his four year old son), the Batemans’ bodyguard, their friends the Kiplings, Burroughs, and the plane’s crew. Each person had an interesting life, in the way the old British saying “May you live in interesting times” is often interpreted to be a curse. The Batemans’ young daughter was kidnapped (and recovered) as a toddler, the Kiplings were being investigated for money laundering, one of the flight attendants was being routinely harassed, and so on. It’s in illuminating each of their lives that Hawley’s writing shines. I was initially concerned that his depiction of Maggie Bateman, David’s wife, would be the blueprint for how he wrote about all the women in the story (Maggie as a young woman gave up a career as a schoolteacher somewhat reluctantly after marrying David and now all her thoughts are consumed by her children), but I was relieved that this was not the case. The women in the story, as well as the men, are varied, with unique experiences, thought processes, and personalities. Hawley (and the audiobook narrator Robert Petkoff) excel at getting readers deep into their characters’ minds, and reading about their lives only compounds the tragedy of their deaths.
When he’s not chronicling what happened before the fall, Hawley’s story follows Burroughs after the fall, including the way he deals with the reporter hounding him and slandering him on air. This storyline in particular is hugely satisfying and didn’t play out the way I anticipated. Hawley deftly skewers Fox News and its talking heads (Bill O’Reilly comes to mind as a timely analog for the reporter who targets Burroughs here) and highlights the way certain media outlets fabricate the news instead of reporting it. There’s also the added wrinkle of the incredible amount of money the young boy has just inherited, and the book includes a small but fascinating subplot about the boy’s aunt and her husband under whose care he is now placed.
Readers may be disappointed by the ending; the reason for the plane crash is simple and involves only a couple of people out of the many that Hawley’s book follows. This is a very television-esque kind of way to tell a story, and Hawley, who currently writes for tv series Fargo and Legion, is very good at telling it. So even if you’re a fan of novels where all the disparate threads join together into one satisfying tapestry at the end, you’ll likely still be riveted by Hawley’s story, which does precisely the opposite. Perhaps that is the point. People lead complicated, messy lives, and often, their deaths are without purpose. For most of the people on the plane, the crash really was just a tragedy – they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and their lives had nothing to do with their deaths.
This is a good pick for readers who enjoy character-driven, rather than plot-driven, thrillers.