Jonathan Miles

"Dear American Airlines"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte SEP 8, 2008)

There’s something weirdly disconcerting about airports. Maybe Seinfeld said it best when he called it a separate country where a whole different set of rules applied: “Do you think they just feel they have their own little country out there and they can charge anything they want? You’re hungry? Tuna sandwich is nine dollars. You don’t like it; go back to your own country.” And then how many among us cannot sympathize with Tom Hanks in The Terminal stranded forever in an alien airport getting by with the barest of language and food?

A similar fate visits Bennie Ford—the protagonist of Jonathan Miles’s debut novel Dear American Airlines. On his way to his daughter’s “commitment ceremony” in Los Angeles, Bennie is stranded for what seems like an eternity in O’Hare. “I stand beneath the screens like a child waiting for Santa’s sleigh to appear in the night sky, examining each star for the faintest trace of movement, ears attuned to the jingle of far-off bells,” Bennie says, “But the screens barely flicker. All flights westward canceled, eastward canceled, everything canceled.”

In an interview, the author Jonathan Miles has said that airport rage is a very distinct sort of anger. “It’s a mind-bendingly helpless feeling—you’re trapped in airport limbo and there’s nothing you can do to escape,” he says. “You want to open your yap and just scream.” And “scream” is what Bennie does. Furious at the interminable wait, Bennie starts to write a letter of complaint to the airlines demanding a refund. What starts out as a straightforward complaint turns out to be a touching narrative of Bennie’s own life. Bennie uses the airline’s tactic back at them when he waxes eloquent: “Digressing, after all, is not so different from rerouting, and let’s not pretend, dear ones, that you’re innocent of that,” he points out. So it is that in just a few pages, Miles visits Bennie’s childhood, his non-starter career as poet and his failed marriages. Interspersed in this narrative are also pieces of a Polish story that Bennie is working on translating. Interestingly enough, the Polish story is also about a person trying to reinvent himself (in this case it’s a shell-shocked soldier) and the parallels between Bennie’s life and that of the soldier are hard to miss.

Born to a Polish Holocaust survivor, Henryk Gniech and a schizophrenic artist Willa, Bennie spends his childhood trying to weave an independent path for himself—his father names him Bennie Ford after the All-American car company in a spirited act of patriotism.

As an adult Bennie stumbles into marriage not once but twice and the product of the second marriage, Stella, is whom Bennie is out to reacquaint himself with before he gets stranded at the airport. He wants to walk Stella down the aisle but never having seen her after she was merely a toddler, he needs to get to know her first.

Jonathan Miles, who is a contributing editor at Men’s Journal and also the cocktails columnist for The New York Times, has written a surprisingly perceptive novel—loaded with ruminations on how life could have been lived better. Yet, for all the pithy material, Miles manages to keep the writing sharply funny and entertaining. His descriptions of his parents’ first encounter (over an unwanted opossum!) and of a drive to New Mexico when his mother decides to break free of her husband are both funny and touching. Miles manages to write with an impressive economy of words: “The marriage was so brief that I think I used the same bath towel for its entire duration,” is a perfect example of his style.

Dear American Airlines starts off as a rant but slowly evolves into a funny yet heartfelt meditation on life’s missed opportunities. The use of a complaint letter as a form through which to tell Bennie’s story is an extremely creative technique of setting out the narrative. Miles succeeds in creating an enjoyable read—one you could even read if stuck at an airport this summer.

Maybe it’s all for the best that Bennie Ford did get stranded at O’Hare. For one thing, we get an entertaining read out of it. Besides, with all the stuff Bennie carries around, it would have made for one expensive flight. After all, American now charges for baggage.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 76 reviews


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About the Author:

Jonathan MilesJonathan Miles left home at seventeen, intent on a life in music, but when he landed in Oxford, Mississippi, he traded in the blues for writing. Having learned the art of fiction and of living from Barry Hannah and the late Larry Brown, Miles has worked as a blues researcher, bartender, gardener, and journalist, covering everything from the death of Faulkner’s bootlegger to the theory and practice of bar fights to the Dakar Rally in Africa. Now the cocktails columnist for The New York Times and books columnist for Men’s Journal, Miles’s work has appeared, among other places, in GQ, the Oxford American, the New York Observer, and The New York Times Book Review.

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