As enjoyable as traveling can be, it is often filled with annoyances. Flights get delayed, long layovers waste time, seats are uncomfortable, traffic gets backed up, and you run out of good books to read and listen to. As I listened to Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles while driving home from visiting my family on Christmas, I felt a kinship with the novel’s narrator. He was stuck in O’Hare Airport with nothing to do but write a complaint letter to the airline, and I was stuck in a car with nothing to listen to but Dear American Airlines. Either way, not much fun.
Dear American Airlines is a long complaint letter to the airline. The writer, Bennie Ford, was heading to his daughter’s wedding in California when his flight was diverted to Peoria. A shuttle took him and his fellow passengers to Chicago where they would be assigned to new flights. For Bennie, the stakes are high. He hasn’t seen his daughter since she was an infant, and this wedding is his one opportunity to mend the broken relationship. As Bennie writes, he tells the airline his story, not just the story of the flight and his need to see his daughter, but the story of his whole life—his mentally ill mother, his alcoholism, his short career as a poet, his broken marriages, and so on. The letter, which starts out as a rant, turns into an introspective journey through what appears to be a wasted life.
The ranty bits of the book are enjoyable in precisely the way a good rant can be. There’s the snark, the sense of injustice, and the sometimes overblown sense of entitlement. Bennie is entitled to his fury (and the refund he requests), and there are some great moments of fist-shaking here. However, a good rant can’t sustain a whole book, so Bennie’s personal narrative provides a nice counterpart to the outrage. It would be a better counterpoint if Bennie’s story were interesting.
Most of Bennie’s story follows the somewhat standard trajectory you find in a lot of contemporary fiction, and Bennie himself is a perfect example of a clueless, insensitive dolt who drinks his way through life rather than really living life. His marriage, which resulted from an unplanned pregnancy, breaks up because he spends too much time at the bar and hasn’t bothered to really know his wife, Stella. Even in his sober moments, and later in his sober years, Bennie’s passions only seemed to be aroused by objects of fantasy, whether those objects are a perfect lover or a blissful walk down the aisle with his daughter. Bennie gets his dreamer’s attitude from his mother, who repeatedly attempted to escape her hum-drum life by running away or committing suicide. Bennie is equally discontented, but for most of his life, he’s chosen a more passive route to obliteration.
I can’t really fault Miles with poor characterization. In fact, I think Bennie is a rather well-drawn character. Most of his actions and attitudes have clear psychological roots that aren’t just about blaming the parents. Bennie himself is to blame for much of what he’s done and how he is, and he acknowledges that. There are times when the book feels like a long justification of all he’s done wrong, but there are just as many times when he expresses remorse. And as the book went on, more layers were uncovered, and he got more complex. He never got likable, which is fine, but he also never got interesting, which is a problem. Most of the time, I thought he just needed a good whack on the head and to be told to suck it up and move on.
A bigger irritation and a more serious problem with the book is Miles’s apparent attempt at structural experimentation and profundity that is the book within the book. Bennie is a translator of Polish fiction, and his American Airlines letter is peppered with excerpts of the book he works on translating while sitting in O’Hare. First of all, the long stream-of-consciousness personal story is enough to stretch the boundaries of the central complaint-letter conceit, but adding translated novel excerpts pushes the conceit into ludicrous territory. I could perhaps forgive it if the excerpts added anything much to the story, but they don’t. They involved a World War II survivor with an amputated leg journeying to Trieste, getting into fights and falling in love. Or something. I honestly couldn’t follow a lot of it, and it didn’t seem to have a clear thematic connection to Bennie’s story. The cynic in me says that Miles felt obliged to have a story within a story because that’s the literary thing to do these days. But people, bowing to this trend is pointless if readers can’t see why you’re doing it. If the thematic connections aren’t clear and you like both stories, write two novellas.
I did like Miles’s writing on the word level. Some of his prose is gorgeous, only occasionally becoming clichéd. The closing sequence about looking down from over the clouds is cringe-inducing, but overall the descriptive language is quite nice. I could believe Bennie was once a poet, and not a half-bad one. Audiobook reader Mark Bramhall handles the language deftly, giving Bennie an appropriately world-weary tone with a lilting Southern accent.
I would have given up on Dear American Airlines after to the first disc if I’d had something else to listen to, but since I was driving through rural Virginia and only had a couple of music CDs handy, I stuck it out and got interested enough to press on and finish once I had other options available. I never warmed up to it entirely, but I was in the end impressed with Miles’s characterization and writing. Not a great book, not even a very good book, but not a terrible book either. I don’t suppose a ranty letter to the publisher is in order this time.