They bully us, overcharge us, then ask us to hold, please, for 40 minutes just to lodge our complaints. Americans spend so much time in this robotic consumer purgatory, it's a wonder novelists haven't spied a story here before. But Jonathan Miles has been paying attention.
In his hilarious debut novel, Dear American Airlines, Benny Ford, a 53-year-old recovering alcoholic and failed poet, has been stranded at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport for most of a day. He is about to miss his long-lost daughter's wedding. While he waits, Benny decides to give the airline a piece of his mind in writing. The letter he writes turns into his life story.
Rage and a rambling self-narrative are a brutal barroom combination, best avoided on the page, too. But Miles is such a clever, amusing writer that he turns what should be a shtick into a terrifically fun read.
Even as the pages pile up, Benny knows his epistolary rebellion is futile, but he decides to amuse himself on the page. Describing the complete and utter hash of his travel plans calls to mind another disaster: his life.
He thinks about his imploded marriage, his scarred liver, his long-lost daughter, his abbreviated career as a poet, his even more irrelevant current work as a translator, and especially his long-dead Polish father, who came to New Orleans after just barely escaping the Holocaust.
Miles has done a beautiful job of moderating Benny's riffs and rants, so that we get to know him gradually, circularly, as one might a loquacious town crank who tells good stories.
One such story involves Benny's parents, whose relationship was torpedoed by his mother's mental illness and his father's inability to admit that America was not exactly all ice cream and glory. Miles brilliantly shows how Benny's base-jump into decadent poetry and its romantic idea of life is both an escape from his father's predicament and a replication of it.
The novel is also a chilling portrait of how a drinking habit can grow out of profound unhappiness and then become its terrible feedback loop. Benny jokes about his excesses and barroom fights, but mostly the drinking sounds messy and not fun.
The happy thing — and I'm not giving anything away here — is that he stopped that death march and scaled back some of his hopes. He just wants to see his daughter get married. Benny knows this is a concession: "We're all victims of our pregnant imaginations, of incurable dreams of transcendence." It is exactly this tendency that took us into the sky, up above the clouds, Benny points out.
Most of us have to live on the ground though, as this book gently and humorously reminds us. One hopes it's available at airports everywhere — it would make great layover reading.
John Freeman is writing a book on the tyranny of e-mail.