Sunday, April 09, 2006

From My Bookshelf

The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky: A True Story
by Ken Dornstein
Random House, 2006

Late last month the Boston Globe ran a piece about Ken Dornstein and his new book, The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky. Titled "Brother's Keeper," the article bore this subtitle: "In a new book, Ken Dornstein preserves the memory of a sibling lost over Lockerbie." It ran on the front page of the newspaper's "Living/Arts" section--Dornstein is a Boston-area author--and it captured my attention immediately.

That sibling lost over Lockerbie was named David Dornstein, and he was 25 years old the December night in 1988 when he boarded Pan Am Flight #103 at Heathrow Airport in London. Ken Dornstein, then a Brown University undergraduate, was home in Pennsylvania on winter break when the phone call from the airline came. Seventeen years and a few months later, Ken has been reading from the book--in New York, in Philadelphia, in California, in Seattle, and here in Massachusetts, where I attended one of those readings Wednesday evening.

When you first see Ken Dornstein standing and smiling at the bookstore's lectern; then as you listen to him read; and, finally, as you watch him accept and answer questions from the audience, it's hard to imagine how he can do this. How can he stand there and read this incredibly sad story so calmly? And how can he respond to strangers' inquiries so politely?

How can he talk about this loss?

Then you read the book, as I have these past few days. At Wednesday's reading Ken seemed to read mainly passages "about David": an episode in which one of David's cherished notebooks was lost; pieces chronicling David's final months in Israel; that phone call from the airline. They were powerful; they were poignant (I was going to quote from one, but it's better for you to read more extensively online, or spend a few moments with the video preview at the book's Web site). They made me (and, judging from the brisk sales following the reading, lots of others) want to read more.

But there are really two storylines running through this book. One is the life of David Dornstein, as remembered (and reconstructed, via David's voluminous notebooks and letters and the "oral histories" Ken collected from David's friends) by his beloved younger brother. (Not incidentally, Ken's first job after college was in a private investigation company.)

David was not a private investigator. He was a writer; he envisioned a time when biographers would pore over his notebooks, write books about him. He wrote and wrote and wrote, leaving behind a true "archive" for Ken to sift through, over time, and to rely on in composing a different sort of book about the writer David Dornstein.

The other storyline concerns the life of Ken Dornstein from the age of 19 forward, and that is a story utterly shaped by his brother's death. It ends, the author suggests, with the book's completion: now, perhaps, he can say good-bye more peacefully.

The two stories overlap and connect, of course. There is shared family history, shared times as brothers. Without waxing sentimental--often citing David's own letters--Ken makes it clear that these brothers were very close. As Ken "reconstructs" David's life he uncovers pieces of his brother's history he never knew. He meets people who were important to his brother. At a train station one day several years after Lockerbie, he runs into a woman David loved. They begin a relationship. They struggle--the circumstances would seem to demand that they struggle. But she is now Ken's wife.

That article in the Globe caught my attention for a reason. There is now a short story prize honoring David Dornstein's memory. In 2003, one of my stories won that prize.

I knew that David Dornstein had loved fiction; I knew that he had been killed on Flight 103; I knew that he had worked at the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE), where the contest is administered. But I didn't know anything else about him.

I waited my turn to ask Ken to sign my book last week. I introduced myself and told him I'd won the prize a few years ago. His face lit up. "No kidding?" he said.

Then he mentioned his idea that the book should be given to future prize winners, so that they'd know more about the person behind the "David Dornstein Memorial Creative Writing Contest for Young Adult Writers." I agreed. Writers should read about this passionate writer, David Dornstein. And they may learn from the beautifully crafted and remarkably researched prose of his brother, Ken, too.

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