The lead-up to and aftermath of a commercial jet crash are seen from the perspectives of many people whose lives the tragedy touches.
Kistulentz's debut novel begins at the Salt Lake City airport on New Year’s Eve 2000—“the last day of the last year when we still felt safe”—with an unhappy 48-year-old airline mechanic who makes a mistake in the preflight check of a 727, preoccupied with getting home to his wife to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Though the crash won't actually occur until the following afternoon, its utter devastation is described in this chapter, “soot and ash and oozing plastic and blood spatter, the implied presence of human remains.” This choice trades in some of the suspense of the situation for a heart-wrenching certainty about the outcome for several of the characters, of which there are many, though some only get a chapter or two—for example, a kid who films the crash, various airport employees, members of the airline’s Adam and Eve teams who go out to notify the next of kin. The central cast member among the passengers is Mary Beth Blumenthal, a single mother who's left her 6-year-old son home in Texas with a co-worker so she and her boss can spend the weekend together in a Salt Lake City hotel, though she's still wondering why he chose Utah. Her brother, a Washington, D.C.–based television pundit named Richard MacMurray, who presumably will be inheriting her orphaned son, is followed even more closely than Mary Beth, including very detailed chapters on his career options and love life, including even the post-breakup sexual adventures of his ex-girlfriend. These chapters seem marginal to the main concerns of the book and, once the crash has occurred, verge on tastelessness. Though Kistulentz confidently sets up and populates the panorama of the book's title, there’s a paint-by-numbers quality to his depiction of his characters’ emotions that keeps the reader at arm’s length when we should be most swept up.
This book has the architecture of a great novel but falls short in the execution. A writer worth watching.