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Wednesday, March 8th, 2006


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

by Ken Dornstein

Brother, Interrupted

A review by Benjamin Alsup

Reading a memoir is often like sharing an excruciatingly long cup of herbal tea with a particularly dopey stranger who has a life-affirming story to tell. But there is little solace to be found in Ken Dornstein's investigation into his older brother David's life and horrifying death aboard Pan Am flight 103 in 1988. In fact, I can't remember a single passage in The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky that traffics in empty sentimentality or easy cliché.

The series editor for PBS's Frontline, Dornstein has written a memoir that reads with the unflinching factual intimacy of a coroner's report. Want to know how a bomb goes about its gruesome business of ripping apart an airplane? So does Dornstein. Ever wondered if the passengers remain conscious when the plane begins to go down? So has Dornstein. He pursues the answers to these questions with a grim determination that is both uncomfortably obsessive and entirely fascinating.

Then, once he's satisfied with the terms of his brother's death, he turns his eye to his life. And here, too, he doesn't pull any punches. What emerges is far from hagiography—more portrait of the artist as a young fuckup. Boy wants to write. Boy's ambitions are greater than his talents. Boy is sensitive, thoughtful, petty, petulant. What we get is a particularly compelling account of a 25-year-old man's life. In this case, a 25-year-old who was seriously confused about the usual topics—love, work, family. Probably not a whole lot different than you were at 25. That is, until he wasn't.

In his exploration of this most universal bummer of a life interrupted, Dornstein has written a book that transcends its subject, becoming a meditation upon not only his brother's life but his own. All of ours.

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