Brother's Keeper

Ken Dornstein memorializes his brother in the new memoir, The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky.

Elton John’s Daniel. Bruce Springsteen’s Streets of Philadelphia. Off the top of my head, these songs are the only two pop culture artifacts I can think of that address the bonds between brothers — and they might not even be about literal brothers, but rather people who share a feeling of kinship. Similarly, few books are centered on fraternal ties. The author of a new memoir about his deceased brother understands why.

“The sibling relationship is kind of a second-tier one,” says Ken Dornstein over the phone from his office at PBS in Boston, where he’s a producer for the news show Frontline. “A parent who loses a child doesn’t have to explain why they’re writing a book about it, or a child looking for a lost parent.”

So why did Dornstein take the better part of 20 years to write The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky? His brother David, who died in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, was something of a golden boy: a Brown University-educated would-be writer, whose curly haired good looks, success with women and operatic temperament the younger brother admired throughout his youth. “My life seemed less vivid than David’s,” Ken writes with characteristic matter-of-factness, “even to me.”

Partly because of their parents’ divorce, theirs was an unusually close bond, with the older brother sending the younger one letters packed with unsolicited advice and intimate disclosures like “my girlfriend’s bed is a large square of quilted comfort. Her bravery in the face of my cavalierly leaving is almost too much for me to bear.” (A tape recording David sent Ken from university is accessible on the author’s website.) Although the pair didn’t look much alike, the ebullient older sibling was always asking strangers and new acquaintances to confirm their resemblance — hoping, perhaps, that their deep inner affiliation would be reflected in their appearance.

This assumption of similarity often troubled the younger sib. At the time of David’s death at age 25, Ken was already pulling away from his dynamic and demanding brother. “He wanted us to become a creative duo, like the Gershwin brothers, or the Coens, though they hadn’t yet made their mark then,” Ken sighs. “He hoped when I grew up that we’d engage in what he called a ‘frantic partnership.’ But I was a little overwhelmed by his attention, and wanted to get out from underneath it a lot of the time.”

The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky is Ken’s attempt to collaborate with David in a way he never did during his brother’s short, often unhappy life. Much like Unforgettable, Natalie Cole's posthumous duet with her iconic father, Nat King Cole, the Dornstein memoir melds snippets of David’s unpublished writings with Ken’s reflections on his brother’s life and death. The result is an engrossing joint venture.

“He always wanted to have a book to his name,” Ken says. “I would never have written this, processed this publicly, but I was guided by the way David had lived his life.”

This reeks suspiciously of opportunistic self-justification. But the David who leaps off these pages is an unapologetic exhibitionist, a half-cocked activist, a tryst-pursuing romantic. “DORNSTEIN’S NEW JOURNAL STARTS TODAY!” one of his notebooks begins (his caps). “Please, dear reader, continue!” This exhortation to some possible future reader was typical; David always imagined friends and potential biographers would pore over his papers after his death to unlock his secrets.

No one came, so Ken dutifully shouldered the task. Something of a methodical plodder, Ken is as different from his brother as their looks suggest, but he manages to convey his elder's quicksilver personality.

As in The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, Dornstein the younger spends much time pinning down the details of his brother’s untimely demise: how the bomb made its way onto the plane, how, precisely, it tore the 747 apart, where the bodies (including David’s) ended up. “Where there’s a sudden, violent loss,” he says, “there’s a radical threat to the orderliness of things. The mind searches for some new order and you feel if you search out and organize this mass of details, you’ll somehow reestablish order.”

It is when Ken begins to investigate his brother’s life, rather than his death, that the memoir takes off and becomes an unlikely thriller. While trying to answer the many questions left unanswered by such an early death, Ken grows up himself, stepping out of his brother’s outsize shadow. “It’s really hard to renegotiate a relationship like this when the other person is absent,” he says.

The questions David left in his wake, and the necessarily tentative answers Ken lobs at us, are equally intriguing. Would David have realized his lofty literary ambitions, thus sharing in the glory of Brown writing-class contemporaries Rick Moody and Jeffrey Eugenides? Or would David’s depressive tendencies and lack of discipline have ultimately defeated him? From a mass of notebooks, Ken impartially excerpts some gems and much arrogant dross. Would David have married his Israeli lover or would he have reunited with his university girlfriend? Ken grows uncomfortably close to the former, imagining what it would be like to marry her himself; he then essays a relationship with the latter. (They’re married now.) Ken finds a precedent for these slightly spooky interchanges in the Bible. “In the world of the Old Testament,” he writes, “if an older brother dies without leaving a son, the next-oldest brother was supposed to take up with his widow.”

Elsewhere, the question arises: was David sexually abused by a neighbour as a child, or did he conjure this experience up in an effort to make sense of his often excruciating, otherwise hard-to-explain bouts of psychic pain? Ken spends an awkward day with the alleged abuser, trying to find out.

David always imagined he’d die in a freak accident, often clipping out news stories of disasters. He once proposed writing a short story about an unknown young writer who dies in a plane crash. He leaves behind notebooks and bits of stories, which the story’s narrator pieces together.

“I don’t get all mystical about his interest in these things, that somehow he knew his fate,” the ever-sensible Ken says. “For him, I think this extreme imagery reflected his sense of explosive forces within him.”

Some of David’s friends weren’t surprised at his death — his natural intensity seemed to mark him as fated for a premature end. “I will never be 27 and carry a business card,” David once wrote. “The standard symbols of a coherent life, the suit, the tie, and the monogrammed briefcase terrify me.”

What scared David far more than this, however, was the possibility of being forgotten. “I am scared posterity will not vindicate me,” David wrote. “Achievement. I have got to achieve.”

David always sought to be memorable; Ken, on the other hand, wanted to slip through life unnoticed. Lacking his brother's assured sense of showmanship, Ken fumbled his way through David's funeral, babbling his eulogy, eventually getting nudged from the podium by his father. By the time he came to write The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky, Ken had become a more self-possessed man, finally stepping forward to give his older brother his ultimate wish. If David wasn’t able to finish writing a book, he would at least appear as a vivid character in one.

“If closure means the absolute loss of memory, I don’t think anyone would desire it,” says Ken. “But I’ve kind of checked off everything on this epic to-do list, and it feels finished to me.”

The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky is published by Random House and is in stores now.

Alec Scott writes about the arts for CBC.ca.