Angry traveler finds inspiration

Times Staff Writer

Jonathan Miles has been best known to readers as a Men's Journal writer who also serves as the cocktails columnist for the New York Times. Amid all that drinking and macho journeying, Miles has been working for at least six years on a novel, "Dear American Airlines," which came out with some acclaim this month.

The book is about a luckless fellow named Bennie Ford, a failed poet and failed father delayed on his way from New York to Los Angeles for the wedding of his estranged daughter. Bennie composes a long letter of complaint to the airline as he sits in O'Hare International Airport, the victim of a delayed flight, demanding his money back. In the course of the letter, he tells his life's whole sad story.

Miles, who spent almost 20 years in Oxford, Miss., where he went to make a living as a blues musician, spoke to us from "the road" -- in this case, Boston, a stop along the way on his book tour.

When you started the book, did you have a sense of how bad air travel would get by the time you finished it?

I started a short story that led to the book in '98 or '99. And what happened to the character in the book basically happened to me. I was flying from Memphis to LaGuardia, and we were supposed to have a 45-minute layover at O'Hare. Citing weather, we landed in Peoria, we got on that bus, and then we ended up spending the night sleeping under a table. That was basically the seed of the plot.

I started it actually as an actual letter. It's a pretty miserable experience -- I guess everyone knows by now -- and I was composing this enraged letter in my head. But I didn't really have any justification for that rage. And you know that rage you get, that totally disproportionate rage you get after you've been on hold for 45 minutes. And then you finally get a human and you want to just bite their head off.

So with that rage, I was just sitting there, trying to justify why I was so angry. Not really having a reason, but thinking, "What if I really had a reason, what if everything was riding on this flight, man, what would that rage be like?"

I've always loved this line from Charles Bukowski, who said, and I'm paraphrasing, "It's not the loss of a man's love that drives him insane, it's a broken shoelace and no time left."

The setting of your book is a situation a lot of people can identify with -- and vastly more than if you'd published the book in the '90s. But you have a character who's not exactly an Everyman, right? How does he fit into the universal suffering you describe?

I suppose there's a bit of Everyman in him. But he's definitely not your typical passenger. But I wanted someone to bring an absurdist eye to the whole thing. And I thought, "How could I have somebody whose entire being was riding on the flight?" As I went through it, Bennie started growing.

And the reason I wanted to have him be an ex-poet, somebody who worked with language, is that this is a 180-page complaint letter. So to have any sense of plausibility, this had to be somebody who was pretty fluent with language, and pretty loose with language. And the idea of being a former confessional poet -- somebody used to confessing things to an audience.

Is there anything technically difficult about writing a novel in the form of a long, angry letter or complaint?

Plausibility is the hardest part -- getting readers to suspend that disbelief.

I had some rules I set for myself. One of them was that this could not exceed 200 pages. One hundred-eighty pages, you're pushing the reader's limit of what they can believe -- over 200, that was just too much to take.

So it was getting this whole life down in this short span, and to somehow balance past and present, in that purgatorial way, when you're in an airport, that time really does collapse into this molasses. Trying to get that down, but at the same time to make it more entertaining than being stranded in an airport.

And the other thing was to have enough of Everyman in Bennie. He's a monster, in one sense, but making him empathetic enough that the reader will carry through. You know, this is a rant. One early reader said, "This is a punk song." But punk songs are usually three minutes long for a reason. So one of the goals was to make him human enough, and entertaining enough, that people will stick with him through all this ranting and raving, and realize there's a human being under there.

What does he have in common with the rest of us?

Bennie is certainly at extremes. His great flaw is his misguided romanticism, never being able to accept life for what it is. I think many of us suffer from that. In a sense that plays into going to the airport and expecting that our flight will take off on time -- maybe that's our form of misguided romanticism.

It's funny: He's educated, he's middle class, he's a white man, and his life is still a mess. I guess it shows you don't have to be part of an oppressed class to have bad things happen to you.

No, I think you can screw yourself up just as well as the world can. Bennie's a guy with a whole lot of sins. . . . But he's also been sinned against by fate. We make or own worlds, to some degree, but the world is made for us in others.

He's not a malicious guy. Certainly narcissistic, selfish, but not willingly hurtful. He hurt himself more than anybody.

Have you had to do much air travel as part of your book tour?

I just had my second flight of the tour this morning. And both flights so far have been beautifully uneventful. I'm sure that will change. Or maybe not -- maybe I've exorcised my air travel demons.

You got a lot of your motivation from your friendship with the late Mississippi writer Larry Brown.

Motivation yes, style not at all. What he taught me -- and it was very informal, we were just buddies and I didn't realize until later that I was getting an education -- was the determination and drive he showed. This was a guy who barely made it through high school, worked as a firefighter, and had, I think, 100 short stories rejected before he got one published, and wrote, I think, seven novels before he had one published.

That kind of determination, that kind of discipline -- it makes it very hard to complain about the writing life.

Do you consider yourself a Southern writer?

I'm certainly influenced by that tradition. But in some sense, I don't know what I am. I'm still trying to figure it out. It's interesting -- I worked on another novel for many years, eight years, a 700-page beast I ultimately abandoned. And that was a very Southern novel, and to be honest a very Larry Brownish novel. It was very painful to abandon it at the time, but that's how you find your own voice.

Did you really run away from home as a kid, to play the blues? Sounds very romantic.

Yeah, I did, though it was a walkaway. . . . I wanted to play music, and for various reasons I did leave home and ended up living with my sister in Cleveland, Ohio. That's where I started really getting into blues, playing guitar and harmonica in this little biker bar.

And that's what led me to Mississippi, really -- music, and reading Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" -- probably the only book assigned in high school that I actually finished.

At the time, Oxford was one of those towns where living was really cheap, and you had all these transients coming through doing interesting things -- musicians, artists, writers -- and it made for a pretty heady mix. I lived for years in a 12-by-30 shack, in the woods, for $100 a month. That was possible. I don't know how else to start a writing career other than with rent like that.

If you were stranded in an airport now, what would you drink?

The problem with airports is you can't really do quality. So you have to do quantity.


Miles reads from "Dear American Airlines" at Skylight Books at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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