SELF-PRESERVATION IS a hot topic nowadays, especially in the publishing industry. This month, two memoirs by tough guys who walked away from separate plane crashes 30 years ago arrive to much fanfare. And each book draws a different lesson from fate's decision to pluck the author from the wreckage. In Down Around Midnight: A Memoir of Crash and Survival (Viking, $26), Robert Sabbag recounts the night his Air New England flight went down on Cape Cod, killing the pilot and stranding seven passengers. Sabbag, at the time a 32-year-old bestselling author riding high on the success of his true-life cocaine thriller Snowblind, crawled from the plane with a broken back after
That message might not play well with Norman Ollestad. Four months prior to Sabbag's crash, another small plane had gone down, in the mountains north of Los Angeles. One person survived: 11-year-old Norman, whose descent of an icy mountain face would have done Joe Simpson proud. In Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival (Ecco, $26), Ollestad folds this disaster story into a moving father-son memoir that combines the flavor of Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life with Simpson's Touching the Void. Raised on surf wax in 1970s Malibu, Ollestad spent his childhood alternately ducking headlocks from his mom's drunk boyfriend and adventuring with his high-spirited father, "Big Norm," a former FBI agent who pushed his son to ski the steepest chutes and paddle into the highest waves. That early training forged some brass in the boy, which came in handy when the plane hit the mountain. Big Norm and the pilot died on impact, leaving Norman alone with Dad's traumatized girlfriend, Sandra. Despite Norman's best efforts, Sandra died during the descent, leaving the boy to find his way alone. That he did so is a testament to the lessons he learned from Big Norm: "I knew that what he had put me through saved my life." Eventually, Ollestad comes to a deeper understanding of his father's guiding philosophy: "There is more to life than just surviving it," he writes. "Inside each turbulence there is a calma sliver of light buried in the darkness." Sound advice, indeed, for troubled times.