TALK about timing: In April, American Airlines grounded more than 1,000 flights, many of them out of Chicago, to check electrical connections on its fleet of MD-80s. Two months later, Jonathan Miles has published his first novel, “Dear American Airlines,” written in the form of a letter from a disgruntled flier stranded at O’Hare, waiting, like Vladimir and Estragon, to be delivered from the existential nightmare of the terminal.
If you’ve ever been in such a situation -- and at this point, let’s face it, who hasn’t? -- “Dear American Airlines” will provoke all sorts of uneasy recognition. Yet Miles’ novel is more than a harangue about the degradation of air travel; it’s a heartfelt exploration of one man’s psychic deterioration and the slim reed of hope to which, miraculously, he still clings.
That’s important, for “Dear American Airlines” is a gimmick novel, which we approach with a certain suspension of disbelief. Even the most despairing passenger, after all, would never write a 180-page complaint to customer service, nor would he reveal in it everything about himself: the refund request as public confessional.
Yet the concept works beautifully. “It’s clear I should’ve been a Russian novelist,” Miles’ narrator, Benjamin Ford, reckons: “I can’t even write a . . . refund request without detailing my lineage” -- and this sense of play, of pushing the boundaries, resonates throughout the book.
More to the point is the notion of the novel as an act of grievance, directed not just at the airline but at the world. Ford is stuck in Chicago on his way from New York to Los Angeles for his daughter’s wedding; as the hours pass, he misses first the prenuptial dinner and then the ceremony.
For Ford, however, this is perhaps the least of it. His life is an ongoing series of missed connections, of might-have-beens and never-weres. (“You look in the mirror one morning and realize: That face, this life, these weren’t my intention.”) His long letter to American, then, is among other things an attempt to make amends.
Ford, of course, has much to make amends for -- a collapsed marriage, an abandoned daughter, a second-rate career as a translator after his first career, as a poet, failed to pan out. He’s a recovering alcoholic with a tendency toward self-destruction, living with his deteriorating mother in a small apartment in New York.
Miles evokes all this with a pitch-perfect sense of the lies we tell each other and ourselves. After Ford’s daughter is born, his wife, also a poet, pushes him to give poetry up. “ ‘You’re a father,’ she said, as if drawing an impenetrable line between poet and parent. ‘So was William Carlos Williams,’ I said. ‘You’re not Williams,’ came her accurate if deflating rejoinder.”
This is writing that pulls no punches, in which we see the entire arc of the relationship laid bare. It’s also very funny, not least because of Ford’s droll, deadpan delivery. Some of the best stuff here, in fact, comes in the form of comic set pieces: an opossum-trapping scene that sets up the meeting of Ford’s parents, or Ford’s drunken first encounter with his child: “When I finally got to the hospital I was so brazenly sloshed that a policeman tried to stop me from entering but I said my new baby daughter was in there so he accompanied me up to the maternity ward. He was standing right beside me when I lifted Stella Jr. from the hospital crib, tears dribbling from my eyes, along with a nurse who hovered nearby with her hands splayed out to catch the baby if I dropped her.”
There’s a satirist’s edge to this writing, an over-the-top sensibility reminiscent of Tibor Fischer and John Kennedy Toole. Satire, to be sure, is part of the point, but Miles is after something bigger -- a story of reconciliation, of redemption, of a character trying to become unstuck. To get at this, he includes passages from the book Ford is translating, a Polish novel that deals with similar themes. The idea is to draw a parallel: “He thought he could start over,” Ford says of its protagonist, “could slide from one life to another as one flits from train to train in the subway -- the poor fool thought he could escape.”
That doesn’t always work; at times, the connection seems obtuse, and I’m not sure we need another layer to highlight what Ford illustrates just fine on his own. But it is indicative of Miles’ ambition, his desire to have the novel stand for more than just a put-down of contemporary life.
Indeed, “Dear American Airlines” is deceptively complex, a novel that surprises us with its depth. Late in the book, while considering his own internal push-and-pull of hope and despair, exhaustion and anticipation, Ford is stirred by the sight of a beautiful woman, who momentarily distracts him from himself. “You’re reminded,” he observes, “that, familiarity with Slavic languages and theories of poetic closure aside, at your core you’re just another mammal, hungry and horny, who’d be a fool to want to abandon all this. Part of you screams More while another part whimpers Enough.”
This is it precisely -- as good a definition of what it means to be of a certain age and state in life as you’re likely to get. It’s also the heart of the novel, the point of view that makes Ford come alive.
“Dear American Airlines” may indeed be timely -- American recently announced that it will charge for checked baggage, and Continental and United plan cutbacks of their own. But in the end the book’s true power has less to do with that than with a timelessness: Miles has created a human being adrift, like all of us, in circumstances mostly not of his making and with no other choice but to try to muddle through.
David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.