Dear American Airlines
by Jonathan Miles
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
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
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
This review originally appeared in Blogcritics.