It’s rarely important to know how a novelist managed to write their first novel. The usual story – hours spent staring into the middle-distance, gallons of coffee, crushing self-doubt, spurts of profound creativity and then the slow descent into imposter syndrome – is enough to make it all seem plenty daunting.
But when you learn that T.J. Newman, author of "Falling" (Avid Reader Press, 304 pp., 3.5 stars, ★★★½ out of four) – a smart airline thriller that is equal parts homage to the 1970s “Airport” film franchise and a 21st-century examination of failed American foreign policy – is a former flight attendant who wrote much of her debut while her cross-country passengers slept, one can’t help but wonder: Shouldn’t she have been … protecting the plane from, you know, sudden peril?
In fact, Newman’s experience is what makes "Falling" more than just a nice summer diversion. The plot’s construction is elevator-pitch gold: Bill Hoffman, captain of a Coastal Airlines flight headed from LAX to JFK, learns that his family has been abducted, and if he doesn’t crash his plane and kill all the souls aboard, Hoffman’s wife and two children will die. Oh, and someone onboard is a co-conspirator, so no funny business. Is the co-conspirator Jo, the all-business flight attendant? Or Kellie, the newbie at the back of the plane who can barely pour coffee? Or is it Ben, the hot-shot co-pilot? Or maybe it’s one of the nearly 150 passengers?
When you spend your life interacting with people aboard a flying bomb – in this post-9/11 era of air travel, it’s hard not to think of it that way – you must become intimate with both the mundane and the perception of mundane, a flight attendant’s job less about delivering ginger ale than it is constantly making threat assessments, and here Newman is perfect. Everyone seems suspect as "Falling" bounces between the pilot, his wife and children, the abductors, the FBI, air traffic control, even, eventually, people on the ground who have been compelled to look up.
And in a way, everyone is suspect, or at least complicit, when we learn that the terrorists here are Kurdish, and that they’re seeking revenge for being left to die when the Trump administration abandoned them in northern Syria. It’s a long haul to make terrorists empathetic, and to Newman’s credit, she doesn’t try. Instead, she merely tries to make them understandable. Revenge is a dish Americans love to consume, which makes "Falling" emotionally complex in surprising and refreshing ways. Wouldn’t we want revenge in a similar situation?
That’s not to say "Falling" doesn’t have its missteps – dialogue is not Newman’s specialty, so she ends up leaning into cliche: The terrorists speak in parables. An FBI agent actually says: “You were on thin ice to begin with. You’re way too close to this to keep going. You’re emotionally compromised and that makes you reckless. It makes you dangerous.” Carrie, Captain Hoffman’s wife, has a single tear roll down her cheek before she declares that her husband would never “negotiate with terrorists.” These are small things, but they remind the reader you’re in a world that’s been well-tread, and often overwritten.
Still, "Falling" is expertly paced – if you were to begin reading this book at LAX, you’d finish it right as you began your descent into JFK, which is surely no accident – so these quibbles flash by and you’re left to figure out just how Capt. Hoffman will undo this Gordian knot without killing his family, or anyone else.
It all makes for a rich and assured debut.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Falling': T.J. Newman's debut thriller lives up to the hype