Grand Central Publishing, 2016, 391 pages
On a foggy summer night, 11 people - 10 privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter - depart Martha's Vineyard on a private jet headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later the unthinkable happens: The plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs - the painter - and a four-year-old boy who is now the last remaining member of an immensely wealthy and powerful media mogul's family.
With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the crash and the backstories of the passengers and crew members - including a Wall Street titan and his wife, a Texan-born party boy just in from London, a young woman questioning her path in life, and a career pilot - the mystery surrounding the tragedy heightens. As the passengers' intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy. Was it merely by dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work? Events soon threaten to spiral out of control in an escalating storm of media outrage and accusations. And while Scott struggles to cope with fame that borders on notoriety, the authorities scramble to salvage the truth from the wreckage.
Amid pulse-quickening suspense, the fragile relationship between Scott and the young boy glows at the heart of this stunning novel, raising questions of fate, human nature, and the inextricable ties that bind us together.
Noah Hawley is a screenwriter and television producer, so it's not surprising this book reads like a screenplay. Very high concept — private plane full of rich people goes down shortly after takeoff, off the coast of Long Island. One guy — a struggling painter who was on the plane by chance — saves the only other survivor, a four-year-old boy. In the aftermath of the crash, a Bill O'Reilly/Alex Jones-type right-wing media personality starts spinning conspiracy theories and casting the survivor as somehow responsible for the crash.
The two threads of story are Scott Burroughs's new relationships with a curious billionaire heiress and the aunt of the boy he saved, who now has to deal with the staggering amount of wealth she's just been put in charge of, and backtracking to what really happened to cause the plane to crash. Between telling a story about media scrutiny and the public's demand for a "story" are chapters describing each of the people on the plane in the days and hours leading up to the fatal plane flight. First are the big names — the Wall Street mogul, the network executive — then the hired help. And then Scott Burroughs, a washed up painter and recovering alcoholic who happened to attract attention from a rich patron, and because of his friendship with the rich guy's wife, got a free ride to New York at the last minute.
The individual character stories are meant to add humanity to each of the people we already knew from the first chapter are going to die. Hawley writes believable character studies and spins little dramas about each of their lives — the schoolteacher who finds herself married into the 1%, the Wall Street titan whose shady dealings have just come to the attention of the feds, the quiet, super-competent Israeli bodyguard, the little girl who survived a kidnapping only to die in a plane crash, the pilot who has a crazy mother, the copilot who's just trying to score.
But if you're just interested in the mystery — what happened? — then this seems like a lot of narrative that's ultimately pointless since they almost all wind up dead. The revelation in the final few chapters ultimately proves to be banal and somehow unsurprising, since while we knew something went wrong, we can be quite certain that the Bill O'Reilly character's sinister conspiracy theories were bullshit.
I think this probably would make a decent move. As a book, it held my attention and I rather liked the main character, Scott, but it's more character drama than thriller, with a body count foretold at the beginning.
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