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Book Review: Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles

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Can you build a whole novel on a rant? Jonathan Miles apparently thinks so. His new book Dear American Airlines is in the form of a long complaint letter to the carrier that left him stranded at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.

Of course, you’re wondering how you can stretch out a gripe about a delayed flight into a whole novel. Well, that depends on how long you’re stuck in the terminal. And Benjamin R. Ford, the protagonist of Dear American Airlines, has plenty of time on his hands as he waits . . . and waits . . . . and waits . . . for the flight that will take him to the West Coast for his daughter’s wedding.

Well, it’s not really a wedding, it’s a “commitment ceremony.” By the way, there’s no groom, but that’s another story completely. Though Benjamin Ford hopes to walk his daughter down the aisle, he first needs to meet her and get acquainted. You get the idea. Let’s just say that the various parties involved in this story have more baggage than can fit into the overhead storage compartment.

This Bennie has no jets, and not much else, for that matter. As the novel progresses, we see that our hero has plenty to gripe about, and not just a flight delay. He was a failure as a dad, but even worse as a husband. He never made his mark as a poet, and his greatest talent may be for imbibing vodka in prodigious quantities. For all the anger Ford vents on American Airlines, there is plenty left over for himself.

Miles layers in story on top of story. He mixes in flashbacks from his protagonist’s early life, as well as the personal histories of his manic-depressive mother and world-weary father. But that’s not all (in the words of infomercial pitches): Benjamin Ford is a translator, and he spices up his complaint letter with judicious doses of the Polish novel he has brought with him on his trip. This story-within-a-story is a stark account of Walenty the soldier who lost a leg in the Battle of Monte Cassino.

The writer’s virtuosity is best demonstrated by the striking and sometimes surreal contrasts between the various narratives. This is not just story-telling, this is story-juggling! Miles frequently changes directions in mid-anecdote, and the sudden shifts from humor to tragedy, from the sublime to the ridiculous, save this book from collapsing into one more rant that has gone on too long.

Don’t be put off by the apparently flimsy plot. If all complaint letters were this enjoyable to read, I would consider a career in the corporate gripe department. The writing is first rate and often very funny. The author constantly delights with wry observations and sly turns of phrase, and almost every paragraph holds some pleasant twist or surprise in store for the reader.

Yet I was hoping for a tighter ending, and maybe even a more pointed justification for all the time devoted to Walenty the wounded soldier. There are many lose ends left hanging at the conclusion to Dear American Airlines. Heck, we don’t even find out if Ford gets a refund for his ticket.

Even so, this novel is entertaining and very readable, and so short you can digest most of it on your next flight. Or perhaps all of it, if you get grounded long enough. But you will hear no complaints from me. Flight delays can’t be all bad, if they inspire stories this good.

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About Ted Gioia

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Boston.com. Nice work!