Down Around Midnight
It was a cold, foggy New England night in June 1979. 32-year-old journalist Robert Sabbag, whose debut Snowblind had recently earned him a spot on the New York Times’ bestseller list and permanent cult status as a preeminent chronicler of counterculture lore, was en route from LaGuardia to Cape Cod in a 19-passenger twin-engine jet. He never made it. In Down Around Midnight, Sabbag attempts to come to terms with the deadly plane crash that left him physically and mentally scarred, to track down fellow survivors for the first time in nearly 30 years, and to reflect on the nature of memory and survival in the wake of a seemingly random tragedy. The result is a sometimes stirring memoir about the struggle to be healed and the tenuous inner journey to unearth what has been carefully tucked away in the mind’s darkest corners.
“There is nothing more debilitating than to think of yourself as a casualty,” writes Sabbag of his forget-and-get-over-it mentality regarding the crash, the face he fronts while recovering in the hospital and for the next 25 years. Only when he finds some old newspaper clippings and mentally re-lives the two gasoline-soaked hours spent in the wilderness of the Outer Cape waiting for help to arrive and comforting the other eight survivors, most of whom are in their teens or early twenties, does he begin to understand how deeply the crash has affected him. Sabbag not only interviews most of these comrades-in-tragedy—all of whom surprisingly still either live or vacation on the Cape—but he also investigates flight reports, examines media coverage, and questions as many of the firefighters, paramedics, hospital staff, locals, and their family members as he can find, including his own sister and ex-wife. The result is a thorough and riveting picture, an emotional roller coaster that he may at times want to get off but, once started, cannot.
Sabbag’s latest book represents a stark departure from his earlier work (Snowblind, Smokescreen), trading in the flawed, freewheeling, yet ultimately likable drug-dealer protagonist for a flawed yet likable version of himself. In tune with John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, Down Around Midnight is not simply a rehashing of a single traumatic moment, but a rumination on the last 30 years of the author’s own life—his marriage and eventual divorce, his relationship with his family, his sudden financial success and “half-celebrity” status, and his gradual departure from the tumult of Manhattan to the picturesque shores of Cape Cod Bay. The most astounding thing—to the reader and to Sabbag himself—is how many, if not most, of his interactions with people and of the choices he has made in the last few decades are inextricably linked to the moment of the crash and its aftermath; how only when “I was introduced to the source of my suffering, I ceased to be its victim.” One of the book’s most poignant moments comes in the wake of a failed phone call with a parent of three of the victims, who clearly wants no part in rehashing a night that left three of his daughters severely injured. It is the realization of the characteristically thick-skinned journalist Sabbag that, “What I came away with was something I never expected: I never counted on how difficult those questions would be to ask.”
At times the narrative stalls in pseudo-scientific jargon (“The flash point of a combustible liquid is the lowest temperature at which its fumes can be ignited in air by a flame”) and page-long digressions lauding various aspects of life on Cape Cod (“There is no better place in the country to watch a baseball game than the … home field of the Lower Cape’s Cardinals”). While the intention of these passages is clear—i.e. illustrating the harsh, often arbitrary reality of aviation disasters and the integral nature of the Cape and its residents to the author’s personal healing process—they tend to take something away from the otherwise fast-paced, non-linear journey through time and Sabbag’s memory. These are the book’s strongest moments—when we see what he sees, when we come to realizations just as he does, when we stand next to him and remember what it means to survive and endure. “Whatever memories time erases,” writes Sabbag, “it will never erase the memory of the sound of it.”
Christopher Vola is a contributing writer for the Rail.