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. 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 is 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. The book's power begins with Benny's voice. Rascally, irate, over the hill but still looking for a final bright spot, he has a weakening cynic's dark magnetism. Even as the pages pile up, Benny knows his epistolary rebellion is futile. Getting angry, however, is even more pointless. "Even now," he writes, "in my maldesigned seat in this maldesigned airport, I spy a middle-aged woman waving her arms at the ticket counter like a sprinklerhead gone awry."
Rather than lower himself thusly, Benny 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 begins one riff after another on the airport and winds up ruminating on his 72-year-old mother, who lives with him in a state of partial paralysis in New York City, communicating via terse Post-it notes. 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 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 do a loquacious town crank who tells good stories.
On one score, however, the novel falters. Throughout the book, Benny offers up sections of a novel he is translating from Polish into English called "The Free State of Trieste." The tale's story nicely dovetails with Benny's predicament - it's about a man looking for an ideal place to rest and to take stock. Only the novel within the novel never takes off. In this case, the shtick remains a shtick.
The more effective story within this book involves Benny's parents. Their 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. After spending a few decades fixing Rolls-Royces for the well-to-do, the old man died in his sleep of a heart-attack, mummified by his knee-jerk patriotism and casual racism. Cascading through this history in flashbacks, Miles brilliantly shows how Benny's base-jump into decadent poetry and its romantic idea of life is both an escape of his father's predicament, and a replication of it.
This is apparently where the drinking came from. He needed to blur the boundaries of what he wanted to be with what he was becoming. In this sense, the novel is 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; he even recounts barroom fights. But mostly the drinking sounds messy and un-fun. He vomits, gets beaten up, arrives at the birth of his daughter drunk, shoves down sausage biscuits, and does it all over again. He spent so much time drunk in New Orleans that his grief over what the city has become sounds a little hazy and hollow.
The happy thing - and I'm not giving anything away here - is 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 and he is not alone in resisting it. "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. In the end, though, most of us have to live on the ground, and this book gently and humorously reminds us of that. One hopes it's available at airports everywhere - it'd make great layover reading.
John Freeman is writing a book on the tyranny of e-mail for Scribner.