20 March 2017


            I often take my toddler grandson on a walk from his home to a cafe where we have tea and milk and a snack. The path is bound by flowering and fruit trees, rocks to examine, pine cones to collect, and the ever present possibility of trucks barreling by or, even better, trucks at work. Ah, the joy of a cement truck.
            Indulge me please, I will arrive at a book review, promise.
Novelist Noah Hawley
The other day, at the cafe, a hipsterish young man admiredmy boy's collection of trucks [always in hand] and I enjoyed watching their repartee although, I confess, I felt myself on alert and moved closer to my grandson. The young man was pleasant enough and soon collected his coffee and moved on, and I was ashamed for my concern. I’m sure the grandmothers of my generation, at least here in the U.S., did not fear sex trades and pedophiles, which seems to me to have become part of the public consciousness when six-year-old Etan Patz disappeared from a NYC street in 1979. Although of course there were high profile kidnappings, like Lindbergh, but the general public considered that the preserve of the rich and famous. 
            By the time my children were in school, in the 80s, they were being taught "stranger danger." Every generation has something. In the fifties we hid under our desks to practice protection against an atomic bomb. [Seriously!?] We watched beloved leaders assassinated. We discovered children had been abused by their clergy. Too many generations of mothers and grandmothers in inner cities fear for their sons, and daughters, in urban warfare.
            Distrust of the “other” has taken an increasingly firmer hold, and 9/11 sealed the lid on that coffin. The current state of the world, and this administration in particular, seems to me a reckoning with the fallout of the bombing of the world trade center. We are known, or we are the “other,” and the others are to be feared.
            I want my grandchildren to be kind. I want them to enjoy meeting all sorts of people and ultimately engage in discourse with all sorts of people. I want them to be hopeful and to believe that humans are good at heart, albeit often misguided and self-serving. Yet here I am, on alert when a stranger gets too close and I imagine when my first grandson goes to school, he will be taught to honor an “uh oh” feeling and to recoil from the unfamiliar.
            So… I was on holiday, joyfully digging into the book pile, and caught up with a very popular novel published last May: a suspense novel in which characters take the lead, their mysteries meant to reveal the larger mystery. BEFORE THE FALL, by Noah Hawley, might have been entitled After the Fall, because in the opening pages, a private plane goes down, with only two survivors, and the fallout is the novel. One passenger, an artist on his way from Martha’s Vineyard to meet with a gallery in NYC, has hitched his ride with a rich neighbor, and he and a 4-year-old boy are the only survivors.
            Is he a savior, a villain, an innocent victim? The FBI, the NTSA, the relatives, will decide. However, the narrative is commandeered by a conservative media talking head. Perhaps the artist is a foreign agent, or the secret lover of the plane’s owner. Perhaps he was the executor of a revenge killing by the partners of a billionaire on board. Police procedurals always look at all the cues and suspects, of course, but the paranoia that begins to dictate the story is not startling at all when taken in the context of our fear of the “other.”
            I’ll leave you with one of the more quotable comments. And, with the hope we find our way back to trust, which is the only way to find peace. Or, skip the news and read a good book.
            He thinks of Andy Warhol, who used to make up different stories for different journalists – I was born in Akron, I was born in Pittsburg – so when he spoke to people he would know which interviews they’d read. Warhol, who understood the idea that the self was just the story we told. Reinvention used to be a tool of the artist. He thinks of Duchamp’s urinal, of Claes Oldenburg’s giant ashtray. To take reality and repurpose it, bend it to an idea, this was the kingdom of make-believe. But journalism was something else, wasn’t it? It was meant to be objective reporting of facts, no matter how contradictory. You didn’t make the news fit the story. You simply reported the facts as they were. When had that stopped being true?