As a young boy, painter Scott Burroughs was inspired to swim when he watched celebrity athlete Jack LaLanne stroke from Alcatraz Island to the shore, his wrists chained to a 1,000-pound boat. Sadly, Scott’s youth of championship swimming eventually gave way to an adulthood of alcoholism, failed relationships, and an art career that never quite got off of the ground.
Fate intervenes in Scott’s life trajectory. His friendship with the wealthy media mogul David Bateman’s wife lands him a last-minute invitation on a New York City-bound private plane, which does get off of the ground at Martha’s Vineyard—only to crash into the Atlantic Ocean sixteen minutes later. Scott’s latent, LaLanne-compelled motivation reignites as he finds himself alive, and then discovers that he’s not alone. Strapping four-year-old survivor J.J. Bateman to his back, Scott completes the herculean task of swimming several miles to shore in the dark.
This powerful scene is the opening salvo of Noah Hawley’s novel Before the Fall, at least half of which is told in flashback scenes that delve into the lives of the privileged adults who perished in the plane crash. The book’s other segments focus on Scott, who doesn’t view himself as heroic, shuns the media spotlight, and awkwardly but plainly speaks what he truly feels and believes. His philosophical musings fail to suffice as desirable sound bites to the ears of the television reporters trailing Scott’s every step.
Furthermore, Scott’s character and his motives for being on the luxury plane are called into question, especially upon the discovery that he’s a painter of “disaster art,” depicting weather tragedies along with car, plane, and train crashes. Each canvas incorporates the same woman’s face, who turns out to represent the sister Scott lost in a Lake Michigan drowning accident when she was 16. A corrupt and pompous Fox News-like “celebrity journalist,” who worked for the late Mr. Bateman, becomes particularly obsessed with “exposing” the swimming artist as a fraud and perhaps even a mass murderer.
Hawley’s metaphors of abstract art and the grind of 24-hour news cycles point to our culture’s ubiquitous thirst to make sense out of things, and the fallacies of so many of our immediate assumptions regarding people and events. He keeps readers on edge throughout the novel as mechanical failures are ruled out as reasons for the air tragedy, while informing us that several of the victims generated plausible motives for nefarious individuals to want the plane to crash. Only in the final pages does Hawley reveal that the crash’s impetus was far more emotional and impulsive, than calculating or strategic.
Before the Fall is a page-turning read that’s already been optioned as a feature film. Given Noah Hawley’s success as the creator of the FX hit Fargo, the movie version of Scott Burroughs’s adventures promises to be equally as breathtaking as the novel.
John Michael De Marco
In his novels, John explores the strengths and flaws of suburbanites seeking purpose and passion in a world of constant flux. In his non-fiction—and as a Certified Executive Coach—John helps individuals develop their physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual potential. Visit John’s website.