Thursday, August 20, 2009

Down Around Midnight by Robert Sabbag

Just before his 33rd birthday, when he was, as he says, “half-famous” because his first book, Snowblind, had become a bestseller, Sabbag was on his way to Cape Cod in a small turboprop plane. Due to pilot error, the plane came down in a thickly wooded area. The pilot paid for his mistake with his life, but the co-pilot and eight passengers survived.

So this short (214-page) memoir is about the crash, looking back over a 28-year interval during which Sabbag just tried to get on with his life, coping with the physical aftermath of extensive injuries and the psychological trauma of being a survivor. As Sabbag relates, the incident cut his life into two: the before and after phases. Not surprising, really.

Memoirs, of course, are all about the great I, and therefore usually come across as a bit narcissistic. I don’t think Down Around Midnight is an exception to the rule. Still, there’s a certain fascination in knowing what it’s like to survive a plane crash, especially if, like me, you board every plane with the absolute certainty that it’s going to drop out of the sky. The story begins with the crash, and ends with the scar left in the woods where the crash happened, a fitting metaphor for the scar that cuts across the lives of the people on board. Sabbag explores both the causes of the accident and the bond that exists between those passengers and rescue workers who are able to deal with talking about it; not all are.

I suppose that if you’re involved in a traumatic incident, and you’re a writer, sooner or later you’re going to deal with that incident in writing. I have the impression of a man who knows his time on this earth is finite and needs to face the defining moment of his life once and for all; but for all that, there’s a certain defensiveness and pushing back in the text. At those moments, the writing becomes brash and journalistic, not at all to my taste.

Sabbag is at his best when he’s being honest about his ongoing emotional reaction to the crash, in particular his guilt that he may have exacerbated the injuries of the passengers he insisted be removed from the plane, afraid that it would catch fire. Once he reaches that admission, something seems to be released and the writing just takes on a deeper and more personal tone.

There were points in this book when I felt that I was only continuing with it because it was short and because I wanted to review it. It sometimes seemed meandering, and the variations in writing style were a little off-putting. But the last twenty pages or so redeemed it for me.

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