It seems appropriate that I should write about my vacation book, The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky, by Ken Dornstein, on the anniversary of 9/11. The book is about David Dornstein, the older brother Ken lost in the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. I was initially drawn to this book because Ken was a classmate of mine at Brown (though I didn’t know him). I could relate pretty closely to the chronology of the book – he and I lived in Providence and, coincidentally, Boston, during the same years, and my life stages paralleled his in timing.
Ken, who initially looked up to David with the subjective, clouded eyes of a kid brother, lost his brother when he was a sophomore in college — just at the time that he was beginning to become his own person. The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky is really two stories: the story of David Dornstein’s short life and the tragedy of his death, as well as the story of how Ken comes to terms with the loss of his brother and the need to live his own life – not the one that David lived or even that David would have wanted for Ken.
David’s story was a messy one. He was charismatic, artistic, caring and dramatic, but also prone to depression, doubt, paralysis and mania. Much of the book describes the painstaking efforts Ken made to reconstruct his brother’s life, especially the years and months leading up to his fateful decision to fly home (a few days early) on Pan Am 103. An aspiring writer, David never lived up to his dream of achieving fame through his writing. Instead, he flailed around, writing bits and pieces of stories but never a coherent whole. The book contains many excerpts from David’s writings, and it is clear early on that Ken is the more measured, disciplined writer. His book flows perfectly, even though it covers many shifting time periods, and the pace at which his own emotions and realizations are explored is expertly maintained.
You can read a bunch of excerpts of reviews at the book’s website. The New York Times (subscription required) calls the book “a mesmerizing tale of family crisis, mental illness, and unfulfilled promise,” though it notes that “Mr. Dornstein records emotionally wrenching events but keeps his distance, and he can be strangely uninquisitive in treating disturbing material, like his romantic relationship with his brother’s most important girlfriend, now his wife.” I think that’s a valid point; I also found it strange, in this post-9/11 world, that the author says so little about the terrorists who took his brother’s life — or his anger at those terrorists — other than a chapter at the end where he attended their trial.
What struck me was the contrast between the two brothers, especially in their writing — David’s frenetic, stream-of-conscious style vs. his brother’s measured, almost dispassionate prose. In trying to tell his brother’s story, Ken in fact tells his own, and in his own voice. He shone light onto his brother’s darkened words, yet it in a way that illuminated his own path as much as his brother’s.
Overall, I’d recommend this book. It’s not a light read, to be sure, but it’s engrossing and thoughtful. David and Ken Dornstein will remain with you for a long time. I am grateful to Ken Dornstein for telling this story and hope that doing so brought him some degree of closure and peace.