Hawley has constructed a meticulous thriller made all the more compelling by his theme: the power of the corporate media to shape what we think and what we see. A private plane, a Gullwing Air OSPRY 45XR, takes off from Martha’s Vineyard carrying corporate media titan David Bateman, his wife, Maggie, and their two young children, Rachel and JJ. Also on board are Ben and Sarah Kipling. Ben is a partner at one of the big four Wall Street firms. A “blue-eyed shark,” Ben may have been under investigation by the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
As the ghostly tendrils of fog gently drift across the tarmac, Maggie anxiously waits for Scott Burroughs, a struggling painter who has taken Maggie up on her offer to travel with them. But Scott’s perspective on this luxury trip, perhaps symbolic of his own shambolic life, is shattered when the plane crashes into the Atlantic, killing all on board except for Scott and little JJ Bateman. Emerging from the fiery water, Scott shouts into the night. While the moonlight tries to cut through the fog, Scott finds himself recalling a scene from his youth--a trip to San Francisco
where he first encountered legendary swimmer Jack LaLanne. Recognizing the sheer impossibility of what he must do, the memory of Jack’s swim spurs Scott onward as he sets about rescuing both himself and JJ.
The crux of Before the Fall balances precariously on Scott’s narrative, at times fractured, at others delivering the status of a man who has become a reluctant hero after saving the boy. In the aftermath of the crash, Scott is interviewed by the National Transportation Safety Board’s Gus Franklin, but he’s unable to offer any evidence that points towards the origin of the tragedy, only that he had met Maggie Bateman a few weeks earlier at the local Farmers Market. Like an astronaut’s vertigo, images of the accident flash through Scott’s mind: a blare of sounds and of metal shrieking. There was a disorienting whirl, “a banging like an explosion,” and at the same time the plane “kind of dropped.” From the sudden downward pitch to the panicked stench of burning metal, Scott becomes increasingly uptight over the recitation of the facts, Gus Franklin occasionally interrupting him with questions.
While Scott connects with JJ and with Eleanor, JJ’s aunt (now the boy’s unexpected guardian), Bill Cunningham, Bateman’s best friend, endeavors to paint a very different picture than what Scott has told the world. Taking advantage of the public’s thirst for scandal, Cunningham attempts to skewer Scott’s version of the events, publicizing him as a notorious womanizer and alcoholic who has never been able to keep a single lasting relationship. Was it mechanical failure or human error? Who can be blamed?
Who is liable? Gus Franklin is positive the crash was no accident, caused not by computer failure or by faulty hydraulics but perhaps by some “torment and tragedy of the human soul.”
Structurally the novel is unique as Hawley segues back and forth between each character’s past,
from the flight crew (the pilot, co-pilot, and the beautiful flight attendant) to the lives of the passengers, to Gus Franklin, then to Eleanor and her husband, Doug, who at first resents David Bateman’s wealth with a fierce passion yet increasingly covets it once he discovers how many millions little JJ will inherit. Scott is
caught up in Cunningham’s carefully calibrated media drama, the battle between information versus entertainment which not only confounds Scott but forces him to hide out in the apartment of a wealthy Manhattan socialite. As Cunningham sets about escalating his attacks, Scott turns to emotionally distraught JJ, the two kindred survivors. Offering him a flicker of hope, Scott forms a friendship with Eleanor,
who in turn finds herself hijacked by Doug’s efforts to recreate a sense of
continuity that defines JJ’s familiar wealth and luxury.
Scott has a sudden flash of memory: he’s back on the flight. Up front, at the open cockpit door, flight attendant Emma Lightner is arguing with one of the pilots, the confrontation uncharacteristically dark and ugly. It is in Scott’s fractured recollections that the reader is reminded how tragedy can happen anywhere and at anytime and that there are dangerous borders between darkness and light. Hawley frames these themes throughout the narrative, especially the blurred boundaries that can exist between human personalities.
From secrets and technology to Gus Franklin’s methodical search to uncover the truth (“the plane didn’t just fall out of the sky”), Cunningham carefully ramps up his campaign, exposing Scott as a fraud and an opportunist no matter the cost. Hawley draws a vivid contrast between reality and illusion, between luck and fate, and between the secret places of a man’s troubled psyche where the voices inside his head dictate whether certain people, the vulnerable and the damned, will fall from grace or battle to survive.