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.