The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky by Ken Dornstein

If Icarus had had a little brother...

By Matthew Sweet
Thursday 22 September 2011 06:33

We are living through a golden age of American self-exposure. The kind of confessions that might once only have been made sotto voce among the potted plants of the shrink's study, are now being moulded and shaped for public consumption. Think of Augusten Burroughs in Running with Scissors, blabbing the details of how his mother surrendered him to her not-conspicuously-sane psychiatrist. Or James Frey, deconstructing his addictions in A Million Little Pieces.

I'm not able to advance any theory about why this should be, except to say that this is a mainly middle-class, post-Freudian phenomenon. Well brought up, preppy suburban boys are putting their family tragedies and romances into the public domain, and they're being enjoyed by the kind of readers who like curling up with a long piece in The New Yorker. They're like Frank McCourt books for people with arts degrees.

The title of The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky sounds like an extravagant metaphor - a bit Icarian, a bit Satanic Verses. Actually, it is bluntly literal. On 21 December 1988, Pan Am flight 103 from Heathrow to New York exploded in Scottish airspace, scattering fuselage, luggage, upholstery and human bodies over the town of Lockerbie. The body of David Dornstein landed in the garden of a resident named Ella Ramsden, along with other pieces of debris. The impact caused Ms Ramsden's garden wall to collapse, ensuring that David's was one of the last corpses to be recovered. That's a detail that his younger brother, the journalist and former private detective Ken Dornstein, had to go to Scotland to discover for himself.

Ken Dornstein has produced an account of a sibling relationship made more intimate by death; made too intimate, by most measures. Icarus went too close to the sun: Ken gets too close to the brother. He makes friends with his brother's old mates. He hangs out in his brother's favourite coffee bars, wondering how he managed to pass so much time doing so little. He meets up with the woman with whom David was living at the time of his death and entertains hopes of replacing him in her bed. He finds David's first girlfriend, and marries her; an act, he notes, that's both encouraged and forbidden by the Old Testament.

Dornstein achieves this queasy proximity by immersing himself in his brother's literary remains: diaries, letters and an immense number of unfinished creative writing projects. Boxes and boxes of self-conscious prose reveal his brother as a writer who had become obsessed with his posthumous reputation without ever having produced much that any third party considered worthy of publication. Ken attacks these papers with the dedication of a Mr Casaubon, and the results are similarly strange and compromised. He attempts to make sense of his brother's outpourings and looks for evidence that his work deserved to be remembered after his death, and fails to find it. He decodes references to his brother's sexual abuse at the hands of a family friend and makes an inconclusive visit to the man whom he believes to be the guilty party. He reads detailed accounts of his brother's sexual life, some of it conducted with the woman whom Ken goes on to marry. He achieves a deep elision between his brother's life and his own. And you can't escape the conclusion that he's living it in a more genuinely insightful way than his brother did.

That's the contradiction that makes The Boy Who Fell out of the Sky such a rich soup: a thick bouillabaisse of family psychology from which unfamiliar fleshy parts keep surfacing, then sinking to the bottom. Ken Dornstein's project - his researches and the book that they have become - is both a loving tribute to the memory of his dead brother and an act of destruction and erasure. He resurrects David by bringing his readers into contact with his brother's unpublished writings, but kills him again by doing so in the context of his own superior prose style. He ponders the rumour that David's suitcase might have contained his magnum opus; that he died in possession of an unpublished masterpiece - but concludes that no such book existed.

Most importantly, perhaps, Ken Dornstein conjures the intensity of his brother's relationships with women, and then obliterates those relationships with new ones of his own construction.

This book is an act of love, but it is also an expression of the power of sibling rivalry. Instead of mythologising the death of a young man, Ken Dornstein strips it away until a baffled, difficult, flawed and rather clueless figure appears. If Icarus had a brother, maybe he would have done the same.

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