Grand Central Publishing, 384 pages, $15.99 (c1998, reprint 2018)
The last time we saw Noah Hawley in print, he had written a smashing thriller, “Before the Fall,” about a man who survived a plane crash and all the implications that had for him afterwards. This time, there is a plane crash but no one survives, and it is not a traditional thriller. In many ways, there are echoes of “Fargo,” the eclectic, quirky, linguistically athletic television show for which Hawley is a show runner. “A Conspiracy of Tall Men” is a reissuance of a 1998 book.
Hawley populates his new book with people named Linus, Porter, Forbes, Preston, and Ford. There are other more mundane-sounding names, like Robert, but those five are the meaningful characters. Not that Claudia, the wife Linus mourns because she died in the plane crash, is insignificant, but she spends no time on stage. And not that Roy and Edward, Linus’ conspiracy cohorts, aren’t pivotal to the action, but they are the baby steps, not Big Foot.
It is about 1998-99, just around the time Y2K adherents began really panicking and stockpiling goods. Linus Owen is a professor of conspiracy — although it has a fancier name at his college — in San Francisco, and he hobnobs with other socially awkward conspiracy afficianadoes, theorists, and geeks. His best friends are Roy and Edward. Edward is rich from an early Silicon Valley coup. He is twenty-four years old and retired. Roy was a logger. Now he limps and is divorced. Roy and Edward live next door to each other.
Claudia is Linus’ wife. She is beautiful and has a successful advertising career. It seems, rightly so, that she and Linus have very little in common. But Linus loves her. That’s why he falls apart when officials tell him she died in a plane crash. The plane was heading to Brazil. She was seated next to a divorced executive who worked for one of her clients, a pharmaceutical company. They were holding hands. The plane crashed because a bomb exploded.
Linus has a lot of whys, the most important of which is why was Claudia on the plane heading for Brazil when she should have been in Chicago visiting her mother. Was she really having an affair? Who set off the bomb? Were Claudia and the pharma guy collateral damage, or were they, against all odds, the targets? One why leads him in a straight path to the other whys. That eventually makes the conspiracy professor into a conspiracy proponent and victim. Perhaps. Perhaps a conspiracy would be less hurtful than thinking that Claudia was simply a runaway wife and an unknowing victim of a terrorist group. (Remember this story was published in 1998.)
What is the nature of a conspiracy? It is the darker side of human beings. It is a philosophical animal, the pursuit of which is a never-ending series of questions. It is the paranoia of the pharmaceutically disturbed, the insecurity of crowds, the resentment of the dispossessed.
Linus also asks, why am I growing taller, why does my nose bleed frequently, what happened to the clothing of my youth, am I turning middle class as I turn toward middle-age?
Far down the rabbit-hole, we are greeted with various elemental questions and philosophizing by weird and enigmatic characters. Here’s one exchange:
“At least try to tell me, before you put me in a hole, why it is I spent my whole life trying to prove that for every evil there is some nefarious, elite group secretly plotting.
Wiley picks a piece of apple peel from between his molars.
“All right, buddy. You’re getting a little blubbery now. They just pay me to ask questions, not to philosophize.”
“Who pays you?”
“Rowdy Roddy Piper.* Now will you shut up.”
This is Hawley telling a fable or a myth, about a quest the hero must engage in before finding out the meaning of life. This is no “Da Vinci Code” or “Hunt for Red October.” This is quirky and then quirkier. It reminds me a little of David A. Crossman’s Winston Crisp mysteries, still some of my favorites.
Ultimately, we come to the crux of the matter. It also underlies some of the plot in “Before the Fall.” Linus asks,
“What is the value of wealth without humanity?”
*A colorful old-time wrestler. I loved the throwback reference.