There could never be a debut novel more perfectly timed to enter the world than Jonathan Miles' “Dear American Airlines” (Houghton Mifflin, 192 pages. $22).
The book is a novel-length complaint letter written by one angry American Airlines passenger who has been stranded in Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and may miss his daughter's wedding in Los Angeles.
Sound familiar? Just a few months ago, hundreds of thousands of actual American Airlines customers were stranded in airports across the country when the airline was forced to cancel 3,100 flights to check or redo something called “wiring bundles.” The universe, or at least the Federal Aviation Administration, has apparently gift-wrapped a marketing campaign just for this book.
So we can credit Miles, the cocktails columnist at The New York Times, with excellent timing. But we can also credit him with a sharp and funny first novel that will outlast the particular troubles of the modern airline industry.
Bennie Ford's letter begins as a request — check that, a profane demand — for a refund of his $392.68 ticket. He's desperately trying to get to Los Angeles for the wedding of his estranged daughter, whom he hasn't seen in years.
From the first paragraph, we hear Bennie's distinctive voice: angry and outraged, literate and funny. If the canceled flight weren't awful enough, he has to sit in a “maldesigned seat in this maldesigned airport,” a limbo without clocks or cigarettes, where everyone seems to be playing sudoku, “the analgesic du jour of the traveling class.”
It may seem like faint praise to call a novel “funny,” as if laughter were a guilty pleasure in serious literature, something enjoyable but slightly disreputable. But what good is satire without humor? It shouldn't hurt Miles' reputation as a writer to point out a simple fact: This book will make you laugh. Out loud and repeatedly.
Bennie grew up in New Orleans, “where cirrhosis of the liver is listed as ‘Natural Causes’ on a death certificate.” Holding his daughter in his arms for the first time, Bennie reflects, “She was so beautiful and small — a gorgeous pink speck of life. But I should also confess that I was drunk almost beyond recognition.”
Later, in the middle of a domestic dispute, he finds himself locked out of his apartment in the rain. He screams his wife's name only once before it hits him: “You simply cannot shout the name Stella while standing under a window in New Orleans and hope for anything like an authentic or even mildly earnest moment.”
Even in his despair, Bennie can't resist a good one-liner at his own expense.
Admittedly, whether you enjoy this novel may depend on your tolerance for a certain stock literary “guy”: the brawling and boozy tough-guy poet, a little too sensitive for today's world, a little too broken inside to hold together a relationship. The template for Bennie Ford might be well-worn, but Miles never falls into the cliched traps of drunken sentimentality or self-pity.
Bennie's letter soon becomes something more, a sincere confession about his failures and regrets, charting the collapse from his early years as an aspiring poet and young father, to his divorce and estrangement from his family.
He's a bad father and a miserable husband, but he doesn't flinch from the truth of it. As readers, we admire his honesty and his righteous anger at modern life and modern airports. And in the end, Bennie is blessed with a moment of redemption, a touch of grace for a man stuck in O'Hare's interminable purgatory.