Wednesday, August 9, 2017

What did the book club think?: Noah Hawley's "Before the Fall"

Sometimes you just need a little more platform for your voice to be heard. That’s got to be at least one factor in the breakout success of Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall, his fifth novel. Here’s his bibliography

First up is A Conspiracy of Tall Men, published by Harmony in 1998. Harmony was and is an imprint of Crown, but back then, it did a substantial amount of fiction. Remember Douglas Adams?

Other People’s Weddings came out in 2004 from St. Martin’s Press. Interestingly enough, I remember the releases of both these books, though they came out when I was buying the adult new titles for four to six stores. It’s not like now when I’m oblivious to a lot of midlist fiction. And sometimes, if there’s no event (or at least event potential) or staff recommendation, I’m not even aware of major releases until the second or third review pops up.

The Punch is a 2008 release from Chronicle. By then our new book buying was transitioning to Jason. What’s more, it became clear that Chronicle wasn’t finding success in adult fiction publishing, and was pulling out of the market. Can you believe that one of the bestselling Robert Olen Butler books we had at Schwartz was published by Chronicle? They also published several works of fiction from Monica Wood, including Any Bitter Thing, which we did very well with at Schwartz. International rights sales of this one were pretty good, based on my quick observation of several European websites.

The first Hawley book in the age of Boswell was The Good Father in 2012. I remember this well, as our sales rep Jason talked up this title at a rep night. It’s even got some of the elements of the current novel, with multiple perspectives (at least two) and a crime at the center. It had a starred Publishers Weekly review, but it didn’t take off at the time, and it still doesn't seem to have caught Before the Fall's tailwind.

It should. And here’s what I’d do. I’d package it more like a thriller. One thing that came up several times during our In-Store Lit Group conversation is what Hawley’s latest is. Is it a mystery? It won the Edgar Award for best novel. Is it a thriller? Well, it also won the ITW (International Thriller Writers) Award for Best Novel. But the truth is that close to half the group (and this was a relatively big sample for a book club, more than 20) felt that it was either not a mystery or it didn’t succeed as a mystery. And yet, all but one person in the group either liked or loved the story. And Carol said, “If more mysteries were written as well as this was, I’d read more mysteries.” That is one reason we have awards, and reviews, and booksellers.

If you don’t know the story at the heart of Before the Fall, it hinges on the crash of a small private plane shuttling a media titan and his family (David and Maggie Batement, along with Rachel and JJ), their guests (hedge fund manager and his wife Ben and Sarah Kipling, struggling artist Scott Burroughsthe bodyguard (Gil Baruch), and the crew (John Melody, Charles Busch, Emily Lightner). The plane crashes into the Sound and there are only two survivors, Scott and JJ. Scott swims back to shore with JJ. He’s a hero.

So now the question is what happened? The titan has a lot of enemies, as does the hedge fund manager. As we learn the backstories of the characters, it slowly comes to be determined that there are at least three valid possibilities of what happened. But the beauty of the book is that the media, let by the Bill Cunningham, star of the titan’s network, slowly comes to accept a completely different outrageous theory, that morphs with whatever

Many of us thought of the Malaysian Airlines disaster, a real-life crash that has never been fully explained, and several reviewers discussed this as well. But several of our attendees immediately thought of the plane crash with JFK Jr. I didn’t see those comparisons when I was browsing reviews and interviews, but when I searched for them, I learned that this was commonly thought of as an inspiration. Here’s a Huff Post profile.

I’m not going to tell you the ending, though you can’t do a book club talk without spoilers, and yes, at least one person hadn’t finished the book. The truth was a number of people were a little disappointed by the ending, but I think that sort of gets to the heart of the book’s theme. We write a story into what we don’t understand, and often that story is way more interesting than the truth. Isn’t that Conspiracy Theory 101? And that said, my guess is that knowing the ending might lead you to like the book more. But I’m still not going to tell you.

You also may know about another mystery, involving one of the book’s chapter headings. A lot of folks wondered whether it had meaning, or was an editing error. It was apparently the latter (as the audio and paperback are different from the hardcover), but led to a lot of interesting discussions.

In all, the In-Store Lit Group gave a thumbs up to a book about a plane going down. The compulsively readable plot will give you a high percentage of attendees who finished the book, and there's more to talk about than your average thriller.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that there was some disagreement about whether the ending worked, some who initially felt the book might not have enough meat for discussion, and at least one attendee who really, really, really didn't like the book. And if Mr. Hawley is reading this, please remember that someone hated All the Light We Cannot See. And someone hated The Underground Railroad. And so on.

Up next we’re reading Here Comes the Sun, by Nicole Dennis-Benn. Because of Labor Day (Boswell is open, but only 10 am to 5 pm), we’re meeting Tuesday, September 5, 7 pm. Dennis-Benn’s novel, the story of three generations of women in Jamaica, was shortlisted for the NBCC John Leonard Prize and received a Lambda Literary Award.

We’re back to our regular meeting time in October, and we’ll be discussing Michael Perry’s Population 485 on Monday, October 2, 7 pm. I’ve read a lot of Perry, and I love his new book, Montaigne in Barn Boots (Perry is at Boswell on November 14) but I feel like I should have read Population 485, especially after reading Jim Higgins’s essay in Wisconsin Literary Luminaries. So that’s what we’re going to do.

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