Crash victim ends up as subject - not author - of book he imagined

Review Memoir


The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky: A True Story

Ken Dornstein

Random House / 304 pages / $23.95

[New York Times News Service]

Among the 259 passengers on Pan Am Flight 103, blown to bits over Scotland in 1988, was a young writer named David Dornstein. He fell to Earth in the yard of a Lockerbie resident named Ella Ramsden.

He had carried with him, according to one newspaper report, the manuscript of a brilliant novel eagerly awaited by an American publisher. Its pages were now scattered across the Scottish countryside or the North Sea, lost, like its author, forever.

The real story, painstakingly pieced together by David's brother, Ken, is even sadder. The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky is a mesmerizing tale of family crisis, mental illness and unfulfilled promise.

There was no great novel, and there was never going to be one. David Dornstein, attractive and precocious, should have been programmed for happiness and success. He had an Ivy League education and lofty ambitions. But by the time he died, at 25, his existence was so marginal and his mental state so unstable that several close friends, on learning of the Pan Am crash, feared that he might have had something to do with it.

"I thought he'd gone too far this time," one told the author.

"David was a writer," Dornstein states at the outset.

That's not exactly true, although David, older by six years, certainly dreamed of being a great author. While still an adolescent, he filled countless spiral-bound notebooks with a torrent of words, many of them directed at an adoring future audience of critics, scholars and enraptured readers.

Random thoughts, poems, dream images, bizarre theories, pretend interviews, scalding self-critical passages and the outlines of impossibly grandiose projects all found their way into these notebooks, a harrowing record of desperation and futility.

"For a time, he told people he was trying to write down every thought that had ever occurred to him," Dornstein writes. Many of them were gathered, along with loose manuscript pages, in a large box that their author labeled "The Dave Archives."

Things went wrong early for David Dornstein. His parents divorced when he was 8, after his mother suffered a mental collapse that sent her to a private institution. In sifting through "The Dave Archives" and interviewing his brother's former girlfriends, Dornstein uncovered strong evidence that a friendly neighbor had begun sexually abusing his brother around this time.

At Brown University, where David wrote a column called "Tortured Ravings" for the college newspaper, he unraveled. Obsessively scribbling in his notebooks until the wee hours, living on junk food and sleeping on floors, he fantasized about producing great literature but failed to turn in assignments.

"I keep thinking that some mystical force will take hold of me and propel my writing into the land of the enchanted," he wrote. "It never happens."

David, previously a remote figure in Ken Dornstein's life, began fixating on his younger brother. Gripped by a sense of failure, he wrote 10-page letters, crazily confessional and often filled with advice, as if he could guide his little brother toward the dazzling success that he himself would never achieve. They make bizarre reading.

"You are beautiful, and your nature is a narcotic to me, my time is not ever so blissful and rich and fulfilling as when I am in contact with you," he once wrote. In another letter, he asked, "Won't you ever tell me of your lovers?" Ken was not yet 15 at the time.

Ken Dornstein, who once worked on insurance-fraud cases for a small detective agency, is a diligent investigator. He travels to Lockerbie and searches for clues and traces. He interviews his brother's friends near and far. After two Libyan intelligence agents are put on trial for the Pan Am bombing, he flies to the Netherlands in 2001 to witness the verdict. Some of this pays off and some doesn't.

It's an open question, half the time, whether Dornstein's motives are personal or literary. The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky is polished to a high gloss, with every transition perfectly in place. A cool narrator, like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, 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.

This approach can also make for high drama. At one point, Dornstein decides that he needs to track down his brother's abuser. The ensuing confrontation, a series of verbal thrusts, feints and evasions, has a chilling authenticity. The alleged abuser, calm and cheerful, gladly takes a trip down memory lane and shares his thoughts about David, without once taking the bait and incriminating himself. Did it happen or not? There's just enough ambiguity in the circumstances surrounding past events to disarm Dornstein.

In a writing class with Robert Coover, David Dornstein wrote the first draft of a work he thought might be his ticket to immortality. It would be a fictional autobiography, the story of an unknown young writer who dies in a plane crash, leaving behind a cache of papers and notebooks that the narrator stitches together into the story of the writer's life. Someone else, it turns out, lived to write that book.

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