ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Article published on February 17, 2016.

As a major fan of the Coen Brothers, not surprisingly I loved Fargo. Frances McDormand and John Carroll Lynch’s tender portrayal of Marge and Norm Gunderson beautifully underpinned Marge’s dogged police work in pursuit of Jerry Lundegaard’s inept crime and his henchmen’s bungling.

And then, believing that TV can never replicate the power of the original movie, my innate snobbery kicked in and I eschewed the TV series. Initially starring Martin Freeman (really?) and now heading towards a possible third series, I still haven’t watched it, even after all the critics have eulogised it.

So the headline on the proof of Before the Fall – ‘From the writer and creator of award-winning TV drama Fargo’ – wasn’t really a pick-me-up. How wrong I was. Scott Burroughs – itinerant and indigent painter – is hitching a last minute ride on the jet ferrying two corporate big beasts and their families back to New York from a vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. 18 minutes into a half hour flight the plane crashes into the ocean killing all occupants except Scott and JJ, four yr old son of corporate beast 1. With a severely injured shoulder, 50 yr old Scott invokes the memory of a real life all-American hero, Jack LaLanne, and proceeds to swim several miles to safety with JJ as a passenger.

Thereafter Hawley takes apart the American media’s obsession with having explanations – and having them now (or else speculating widely and wildly on might-have-beens, with a fair dash of insinuation). Step forward red-bracered Bill Milligan who had been mentored by the man who owned – and died on – the jet. David Bateman also ran a shock horror news station that makes the News of the World look like Andy Pandy. Milligan is the station’s very own news anchor cum piranha cum Rottweiler who glories in fabricating conspiracy theories and browbeating any one who gets in the way of a good story.

There follows phone tapping and harassment as Scott’s newly-acquired hero status is turned, both by the media and the authorities, into a case study of victimisation. The action is neatly moved at a pace of knots that drags in interesting  side characters like Doug who thinks all his prayers have been answered when his newly-wed wife becomes the guardian for 4 yr old JJ – now worth in excess of $100 million. Then there’s Gus Franklin, an engineer who has been bruised by life for not understanding the fallibilities of people, rather than the predictability of metals and materials. And he’s still a nice guy.

The publisher would have it that this is a literary thriller – and there are some thoughtful passages and sensitively portrayed relationships – but the key word here is thriller. And the book is none the worse for that.

The need to resolve a plot slightly stretches credibility towards the end – but that was only after I put the book down and had time to think. Before then I was rapt and engrossed when I should have been paying attention elsewhere. Given his track record with Fargo, Noah Hawley can undoubtedly turn this into a gripping screenplay – I just hope it will be a full-blown movie and not a TV series.

Guy Pringle
Feb 17, 2016
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
Hodder & Stoughton hbk June 9 2016

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