Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dear American Airlines, by Jonathan Miles--a review

Benjamin “Bennie” Ford, 53, the narrator of Jonathan Miles’ novel Dear American Airlines, is a middle-aged, alcoholic, erstwhile poet who now translates novels from the Polish. He is on his way from New York to Los Angeles to keep a promise to his estranged daughter, to walk her down the aisle at her commitment ceremony. But he gets stranded at O’Hare airport when a layover turns into a flight cancellation, and mere waiting turns into purgatory. Poor thing, we think—we can all relate to that kind of horrible situation, especially at the hands of a bureaucracy or a corporate giant. But Bennie has more riding on this trip than most people do—he’s counting on it for a share of redemption.

At the outset I was worried that Bennie’s tale would not hold my attention, because it was based on the gimmick of a screed to the airline, demanding a refund, and I didn’t think the angry letter gimmick was going to be sustainable, no matter how impressive the writing. But I soon found that the story stands on its own merits. Not only does the author engage us in the tale of the downward spiral of Bennie’s life till now, we also get pulled into the complementary story of the Polish novel Bennie is translating, about the post-WWII wanderings of a Polish soldier who lands in Trieste. And we get drawn into the sad but funny anecdotes about Bennie’s crazy, southern mother Miss Willa, and her misbegotten marriage to Bennie’s father, a Polish concentration camp survivor and refugee.

Bennie’s a “poor thing” in general, we realize, as he spins his tale. He speaks with appealing self-deprecation, dark humor, and brutal honesty about the many regrets he has about his fairly miserable life, and though you may not respect some of the choices he’s made, you can’t help but like the poor fellow. And by the end of the story, I was invested in discovering whether or not he would find any redemption. Without giving away the ending, I’ll say that Bennie’s journey turns out to be more than just his reflection on the wreck of his life, it shows us that, whether or not we are late for the wedding, we can still make time to make things right.

I enjoyed this book for two main reasons—the sharp, witty writing, and the engaging human story. I’ll be interested to see what Jonathan Miles does next.

8 comments:

BookWormz said...

as someone who often has trouble getting out of or into O'Hare, this is going to be a must-read for me! :)
www.bookwormzreader.blogspot.com

planetbooks said...

Loved your review!! I have had this title on my Amazon Wish List since it first came out. I may have to add it to my Kindle wish list now and read it on our United Airlines flight this spring when we move back to the States from Okinawa. (Now I just need my Kindle to arrive!)

Gentle Reader said...

Bookwormz--I wonder what it would be like to read this at an airport! But I hope you never get stuck at O'Hare :)

planetbooks--Oooh, that means you'll be getting the Kindle 2. I hope it arrives to you soon! You'll have to let me know how you like it. I have the now obsolete first Kindle, and I think it's great for travel.

Matt said...

I love your review, so hit home! I'll have to bring it to the top of my pile. I just experienced a cancellation yesterday in Las Vegas! It's good to know that this novel stands on its own merit.

litlove said...

What a great review! I've never heard of this book, but will look out for it now.

Gentle Reader said...

matt--I was pleasantly surprised by this one :)

litlove--it's a really interesting little book. There's a fascinating mother character in it--a mentally ill woman who was really unable to take care of her son when he was a child, and now that she's old, he's taking care of her. She's had a stroke that has basically restored her sanity, but left her so that she can't speak, so she writes her son wonderfully pithy post-it notes :)

Ian said...

You haven't quite sold me on that one. Airports are traumatic places nowadays. I hate having to fly from Heathrow, for example.

Gentle Reader said...

Ian--LOL, yes, airports are traumatic places. The writer provides plenty of examples of this, but the story is more focused on the main character's misery for other reasons. But I agree with you, I'd rather avoid airports when I can!