Next month will mark twenty years since 9/11, an occasion sure to be marked with sober assessments of how little we’ve learned, and how fruitlessly destructive America’s retributive wars abroad have been. T.J. Newman’s new novel Falling arrives as an update of the heroic-air-crew story that deeply resonated after 9/11, a reminder of how profoundly shocking it was to realize that commercial airliners could become engines of instant doom for thousands of victims.
Newman, a debut novelist whose past occupations include both bookseller and flight attendant, considers one of those nasty little puzzles thriller writers specialize in: how do you hijack a commercial airliner after post-9/11 security upgrades? The answer is, in a sense, comforting: Newman’s villains need to employ multiple strategies to stack the deck in their favor. Fortunately for hero pilot Bill Hoffman, he gets a fighting chance when his adversaries prove susceptible to a book-length version of the Fallacy of the Talking Killer.
The other update, albeit one that feels a bit superficial, is the novel’s degree of sympathy for its Middle Eastern hijackers. Yep, that’s right: Falling pits a square-jawed white guy against a brown-skinned man and a complement of explosive vests. Newman goes to substantial lengths to validate his grievances against the millions of ordinary Americans who can’t be bothered to educate themselves about the repercussions of their country’s actions abroad, but the author’s focus is so clearly on the hijacking plot, and her characterizations of the flight crew so deeply sympathetic, that her attempts to humanize the perpetrators end up feeling forced.
In pure page-turning suspense, though, Newman delivers on her compelling premise. It was oddly satisfying to tell people what I was reading, because you give them one short sentence — “A pilot’s family is taken hostage while he’s in flight, and the kidnapper threatens to kill them unless the pilot crashes the plane” — and that’s it. They’re in. It’s the ultimate elevator pitch, one that could have worked at any point over the past several decades but takes on new dimension in a constantly-connected world where pilots routinely sit in the cockpit and surf the internet. (For many readers, this might be yet another disturbing revelation.)
Audiobook narrator Steven Weber plays it straight, well-advisedly going light on the accents and emphasizing the author’s ultra-sincere expository style. While Newman’s no prose stylist (“they lived in a crappy one-bedroom in a crappy part of L.A.”), her careful plotting pays off in tense interludes like one in which Bill’s passengers must face a challenge they know is coming. It’s characteristic of a book that, like its protagonist, makes a promise and aims to keep it.