the big book of the summer is almost too good to be good

The big commercial novel of the summer is T.J. Newman’s airplane thriller Falling and, since the publisher fueled its ascent with a massively expensive advertising campaign, the sort you see just once every couple years, I was excited to read it, see how the author pulled it off, but figured the Kindle edition wouldn’t come down from its $14.99 price point for a while. 

Fortunately I was wrong.

Today, miraculously, Falling went down to just $5.99, so I bought it in the morning and then, this afternoon during a rainstorm, I jumped on the couch and read the first hundred pages and I was happy to see that it’s exactly what it promises to be: A top-notch thriller. 

The pages breeze by. 

And part of the reason I’m interested is because the novel I just finished writing is kinda halfheartedly trying to be something like this insofar as it’s got a low pagecount and it’s propulsive, conversations never go on for very long, the narrator doesn’t turn pensive and wax philosophical about anything, or describe the scenery. 

It’s all about the story, getting people out the door and into tough situations.

I spent a good chunk of the morning working on revisions and then, with thrillers on my mind, I opened up Falling and read the first hundred pages in one sitting and thought, “I seldom read a hundred pages in one sitting–this makes me feel good about myself.”

But it also occurred to me that Newman’s Falling is almost too propulsive. 

Which sounds like an idiotic complaint. Like saying it’s too good. 

What I mean is that this book’s intention is to keep you turning pages. In a sense, you could say the book is targeted, mainly, toward readers who don’t necessarily like to read. They like a good story! 

But they seldom find a story so good that they’ll follow it for three- or four-hundred pages. 

There’s a way in which it feels like the author and publisher are trying to sneak a novel into a moviegoer’s diet. 

Also: the film rights sold almost immediately for seven figures.

The book seems to’ve been written with the movie adaptation in mind. And I don’t think it’d be a stretch to say the book’s essentially a screenplay. There’s nothing in the first hundred pages you would call literary. The flashbacks are rendered in italics, but that’s about it. 

If the book is specially-made to be a mega bestseller, you have to be able to guarantee that people will read it quickly. That it’ll be exciting. So it’s gotta have things that people will recognize. 

Including people who don’t normally read books. 

Little cues that let them know who’s who and what’s what.

The action (and the humor and the romance) should be presented cinematically.

Like for instance: there’s a character in Falling who’s only there for comic relief (so far). 

And he’s funny! His name is Big Daddy and I like him very much. 

But I was getting so caught up in the momentum of the story that, almost anytime Big Daddy appeared in the first hundred pages, I kinda skimmed his dialogue–not because it’s bad, necessarily, but cuz I was so interested to see how the story turned out and, since he’s mostly just cracking jokes, I was pretty confident he wouldn’t say anything critical to the story. 

Adrenaline was up and I didn’t have time to stop and smell the roses with this guy.

If I wrote a thriller, however, and someone told me, “I was so excited by the story, I skimmed the bits of character development, cuz I just had to know what happened next!”, I’d be pretty bummed. 

Ideally, your characters are as interesting as the plot that ensnares them. 

One of my favorite novelists currently working is Don Winslow, a crime writer, and his forthcoming novel City on Fire just got postponed, unfortunately, to April 2022–but I got a review copy prior to the bump, and I read it in a couple days, and it’s absolutely wonderful, up there almost shoulder-to-shoulder with his very best books. Part of its allure stems from the simple fact that it’s a mob story, and the twists and turns are intricate and exciting, but there’s also a major story component having to do with someone’s illness. 

And that illness, totally at odds with the action, is compelling.

Then there’s another chunky section devoted to a woman’s marriage to a wealthy man whom she adores, personally, but doesn’t love. 

And it might be one of the best parts of the novel. 

The chapter of broken love, yes, is probably the best section of this crime novel. More interesting than the shootings, the first fights, the tense backroom negotiations among gangsters. 

I’m sure Winslow’s aware, while working on a novel, that he’d be wise to arc his punches so that they’d land on a moviegoing audience too, rather than just readers, so he can make a penny from Hollywood too.

But Winslow’s stories aren’t just books. They’re novels. The third-person narrator is a formative presence in each one. Any filmmaker trying to adapt Winslow’s work is gonna have to find a way to communicate not just the story, but the personality. The voice.  

Falling is riveting and I look forward to zipping through the last 200 pages, I’m really enjoying it; but I can’t remember having this experience with a book where, after a hundred pages of genuine intrigue–I also wasn’t compelled to underline a single passage. Nothing got me thinking. Nothing struck me as lyrical. Nothing made me laugh or question something in my life.

And that’s fine! Falling isn’t trying to be thought-provoking or lyrical. 

But, in working on my own thriller-type thing, it prompted a thought I wouldn’t have otherwise imagined having.  Let’s make this exciting….but not too exciting.

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