Reading And Falling
This past weekend I wandered over to Union Square, strolled past the big march, saw a group of genuine Communists -- red t-shirts and banners and everything -- more genuine Communists all together in one place than I've ever seen in my life, and then I wandered into the big Barnes & Noble on the square. What else could I do? I'd never seen that many Communists all in one place like that. I had to do something to mark the occasion.
A book cover caught my eye. The cover was mostly blue sky with a little bit of forest at the very bottom. There were six pieces of white paper that appear to be drifting down out of that sky. In black block letters the title of the book also drifts down: The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky.
The image is particularly striking to me because pieces of white paper drifting in the sky is the first image I recall seeing on the morning of what would turn out to be the day the World Trade Center was destroyed. Except in my case the pieces of paper were much smaller as a consequence of being much higher in the sky, and they were swirling through a cloud of dark brown smoke. It looked, if you will forgive me, like a giant brown turd sprinkled with glitter hanging in the sky above lower Broadway.
So, I picked up the book. Was this possibly a 9/11 book I hadn't heard of? I flipped through it and discovered that, no, this wasn't about 9/11; this was about an altogether different catastrophe: Pan Am flight 103, the 747 that blew up in the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland on the evening of December 21, 1988. The author's older brother was on that plane. The author's brother was the eponymous boy who fell out of the sky.
I remember the moment I first learned of Pan Am 103's fate. I was seated in the back of a TWA DC-10 waiting on the tarmac at JFK, waiting for the rest of the passengers to board so we could take off and head westward into the night, destined for Seattle. The person who told me? My friendly and helpful flight attendant. She looked driven to tell me, or driven to tell somebody anyway, and I just happened to be the one sitting there. She lowered her voice, leaned toward me across the aisle and whispered the news that a plane had been blown out of the sky.
Even under the best of circumstances, I'm not a very happy flyer. Once I'm on the plane I'm usually okay because I can force myself to not think about Certain Things. This news about 103 I didn't need just then so, of course, I promptly made her tell me everything she knew. I didn't want to know about it in the first place, but once I did know about it I had to know everything there was to know. Unfortunately, she didn't have much more information for me. She only knew that a plane had been blown out of the sky, that we were on a plane that was about to head into the sky, and that she was shaken and scared. She didn't tell me that last part. I could see it for myself.
People that you care about falling from high places to their death is not exactly my favorite subject so, naturally, I bought the book immediately. We are so weird that way: Attracted compulsively to things that upset us the most, or things that still upset us because we haven't yet made a lasting peace with them.
Precis: The author's brother, David, was 25 the night he fell out of the sky. He was an aspiring writer who left behind piles and piles of notebooks. The author, Ken Dornstein, 19 the night his brother fell out of the sky, had always looked up to his older brother. Ken sets out to try to find a way to come to terms with what happened to his beloved sib. He meets and talks with anybody he can track down from David's life. Eventually, he has a relationship with one of David's ex-girlfriends. Then he has another relationship with another of David's ex-girlfriends. Then he marries her.
That's not the entirety of the book, not by any means, but it's certainly enough to give you a taste of how strange this story is. The author, younger brother Ken, is not unaware of how strange it is, but knowing that you have gotten yourself into something strange is not always enough to keep you from getting yourself into it. Not by a long shot.
This is an extraordinarily cruel book, if by "cruel" I mean it made me cry in places, which it did, so I guess that's what I mean by cruel. But cruel is good if the cruelty gives you an excuse to do some of your own crying that you still have left to do. The story is built to be cruel because you start out by learning the details of what it's like to be in a plane that gets blown up, and what it's like to be at home in the afternoon on a day when you don't expect anybody you know to be flying but an airline calls and wonders if you are the family of a David Dornstein who might possibly have been on the plane you read about in the paper that morning.
That's what you start with. First you meet the dead guy. Learn about all the horror, right up front there, and then you set off to get to know him. Everything you learn about him is illuminated by the light off those pieces of paper drifting down from the sky.
He wasn't a bad guy. He wasn't a brilliant writer. He was good, like so many of us are, but it seems unlikely to me he would ever have rocked the literary planet. He was bright, funny, full of way too much energy and depression, full of love and very troubled too, but for a great many people apparently worth the trouble he caused them. So, you know...
So you know as you get to know him that he's already died horribly. So what? The story of these two brothers is worth reading anyway. Worth all the trouble, so to speak. David wasn't all that different from anybody else finally, when you come right down to it, except he was Ken's brother and Ken loved him, and David loved Ken, and then one night David fell six miles out of the sky and landed in some poor Scottish lady's back garden.
Come to think of it, in my view anyway, none of us are all that different from anybody else. Certainly most of us would prefer not to have people we love fall out of the sky, but in one way or another it eventually happens to pretty much all of us -- unless you are the first person of all the people you know to fall out of the sky, of course. In which case, you don't ever have to deal with any of this. All you have to do is, you know, die. The rest of us, we're stuck with living in one way or another our own stories like the story told in The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky.
Which is why we have literature, of course -- so we don't feel so alone tumbling down out of the sky, waiting to hit the earth.
I love that image. A guy reading a book, just passing the time as he falls out of the sky. Cup of tea while you're at it? You're welcome to have a cigarette, by the way. No smoking regulations here. You better read a little faster, though. At the rate you're falling you'll never get to the end before, you know, The End.