There are thousands of stories now about men and women who fell out of the sky. The trouble has been the telling. Like the reverse slow-diver at the end of Jonathan Safran Foer’s last book, most 9-11 fictions have felt oddly frictionless, as though they were stuck in a very long year of magical thinking. But if the stacked Times obituaries sounded aries sounded like dozens of exhalations, then Dornstein’s The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky is one long whoosh of a memoir. Dornstein has outlived by nearly 20 years his brother David, who died in the 1988 Pan Am Lockerbie disaster, and the cumulative effect is a breathtaking flameout. This is not a book to be read twice: It hurts too much, and it’s not to be forgotten.
David Dornstein dreamed about spectacular deaths, sometimes plane wrecks, that would leave behind “a book that will keep the critics and biographers and scholars busy for their natural lifetimes,” as he put it. What he left was a fire hazard of unpublished stories, journals, clippings, and ravings. Along with them was a younger brother sensible enough to make sense of David’s outflow yet naturally, utterly taken by his willfully eccentric, adoring provocateur of an older brother.
Dornstein pours out pages as dumbstruck, pained, and in love as he remains with David, and as David was with everyone he knew. About David: “He liked orange soda. He took long showers. . . . He lost his virginity in the summer of 1979 during our family’s first trip to Grossinger’s in the Catskills. . . . He often slept fully clothed with a book over his head. . . . The summer before he left for Israel, he asked me to go into a 7-Eleven and buy him a pack of Kool cigarettes. I refused, but I don’t remember why.” A regular smart boy in his twenties, maybe annoyingly precocious at times—but David is an aching cousin to the most compelling people we meet, and the brightest ones we read about in books. Dornstein makes his brother into a character whom we feel we’ve already, always known.
The writing is as casual and secret-chocked as the letters the brothers used to exchange. David, it seems, was Dornstein’s own Buddy Glass: “Warn me,” he wrote, “if I become overly pedantic, overly wise. This is a common occurrence in older brothers, fathers, philosophers, poets, and scholars of every type. . . . But especially older brothers, who feel surges of closeness to their younger brothers, and want to give them all they are able. . . . You must realize that what I write to you are love letters.”
Daunted by his brother’s avowals, Dornstein rarely wrote back within David’s lifetime. This is hardly a betrayal. Whether or not David was a great artist, he was a devastating confessor of love, a love so presciently conveyed that one is left, even secondhand and decades later, dumbfounded. David wrote, to his high-school-aged brother: “I don’t know what you’ll do in life . . . who you’ll be, what you’ll desire. . . . Maybe I’ll be the inspirational figure from somewhere in your past who helps you to where you’re going even if he doesn’t make it there himself. . . . Do what you want, and do it as well as you can, as long as it doesn’t hurt people unnecessarily. And try not to be frightened of getting hurt yourself.”
David also explained, always romantically, that his high-school-aged brother walked a fine line between their doctor father’s pragmatism and his own tortured artist persona. This much seems unchanged. Dornstein, half dogged researcher, half burning disciple, careens as a narrator between these two poles. His sources couldn’t be more primary: David’s willed stash of crumpled confessionals. Their solace is, even had David lived, there couldn’t have been a more knowing biography.
Still it’s hard not to wonder about the blurry woman who falls in love with both brothers and whom, eventually, Dornstein marries. Kathryn remains, in the book, only a shadow between them. Dornstein insists that their relationship, from the beginning, was about more than David. Yet there’s something unnerving about how he insists on calling her “K” except in reference to his brother. Where David remains most present, Dornstein’s hand is the shakiest, as if he’s almost afraid of writing his brother over. In all the interspersed photographs, Kathryn appears only once, with David. It’s a shame we don’t get to know her distinctly, and a mark of the danger running through the book—that the specter Dornstein raises of his brother goes on to bury everyone else.
Dornstein and Kathryn have children now, and it’s difficult not to wonder what, someday, they will make of all this. It feels intuitive to think intrusively, obsessively, about the latter-day Dornsteins. The book’s pathologic exposures leave room for little else. Except, perhaps, for writing letters back, the way women returned slips of paper to David on trains and in coffee shops. The way the brothers wrote between themselves.