Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley / **** ½

41cmq0ncxbl-_sx329_bo1204203200_I wasn’t aware, until recently, that Noah Hawley was an author. In hindsight, of course, it’s something that makes quite a bit of sense; when you look at the two seasons of the amazing Fargo, there’s a novelistic quality to them, as characters and plot threads interweave, larger themes emerge, complex stories blossom and resolve, and so forth. And that doesn’t even get into the appeal that a close-ended story, such as Fargo‘s self-contained seasons, would probably have for a novelist.

So, yeah, it makes sense that Hawley is a novelist. And furthermore, it’s not a shock that he’s such a good one. Hawley’s Before the Fall (which is set for release in May) is the story of a plane crash – or, more accurately, of the two survivors of a plane crash. When a small private plane goes down in the ocean, only two people make it out alive: a painter named Scott Burroughs, and a young child whom he basically carries all the way back to shore. What unfolds from there is part mystery, part drama, as various forces – both governmental and private – try to figure out why the plane went down, how exactly an alcoholic painter made his way onto that plane, and if there’s more to his survival than random luck and chance. Hawley stirs in a slew of factors into this mixture – among the passengers on the plane were a news network head (roughly akin to Fox News) and a financier who was under federal investigation, and that’s before aviation officials get involved – all of which allow him to follow a slew of disparate threads as they all spiral outward from this disaster.

As you might expect from Fargo, Hawley is less interested in the crash itself, and more interested in the ramifications. From the way Burroughs and the child cope with their trauma to the media coverage of the survivors, from a cable news demagogue to a modern art figure, from fragments giving us windows into the lives of the passengers to glimpses of Scott’s haunting artwork, Hawley uses the crash as an inspiration point that allows him to take on some big material. This is a book about the way the media shapes the news, yes, and about how artists cope and try to make sense of the world. But it’s also a book about the corrupting influence of money, and the way that death and trauma can shape us both for the better and for the worse. It’s about how people are often desperate for one more chance to prove themselves, and how every single person is more complex than we want to believe they are.

In short, this is heady material, done in the guise of a thriller. And that’s no doubt going to disappoint some people who expect something more conventional – more thrilling, more mysterious, more…something. And it’s not those things. Indeed, the ultimate answer to the plane crash is a simple one, and one that’s far more tragic and awful than anything else we might have expected. But that’s part of Hawley’s plan here – as he was in Fargo, he’s interested in how people treat each other, how they relate and judge, and how they’re shaped by the factors in their lives. For those who want something thrilling, or exciting, they’ll be disappointed. But for those who love rich character work, complex human interactions, thoughtful writing about the world and our place in it, and a fascinating mystery that’s engaging but never the focus, Before the Fall is richly satisfying and compelling stuff.


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