Dear American Airlines – Jonathan Miles (2009, Mariner Books, Boston)
Should a good book be savoured or devoured? How about both? At times, I felt like I was gobbling down Jonathan Miles’ Dear American Airlines, unable to consume it quickly enough. Still, even as I was shovelling it in, I caught myself repeatedly rereading sentences, paragraphs, entire chapters, just to revel in the viciously-sharp, hilarious, and weirdly beautiful writing. I haven’t read such an utterly delicious book in a good long while – this one is a bona fide treat for the heart and head.
But let me clarify something. It may seem like this is the most depressing book ever: after all, the protagonist Bennie Ford is a sad-sack, middle-aged translator of Polish literature, a man who has failed at his marriage(s), abdicated fatherhood, abandoned the art of poetry, and spent most of his adult life in an alcoholic haze. He’s faced with the ultimate crisis, when, on the eve of his estranged daughter’s wedding – and the only chance he has to redeem himself and perform his fatherly duty to walk her down the aisle – he is stranded in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, grounded by weather. Despairing and furious, Bennie begins to write a letter to his airline carrier, at first to lay blame, and then to explain how he got to this place (and, of course, I’m not just talking about the airport!). It all comes out – his dysfunctional childhood, his passion for language and literature, the women, the drink, the guilt. It’s a heartbreaker, to be sure, but it is told in such a caustic, whip-smart, darkly humorous way that you find yourself giggling through your tears. Bennie’s voice, and his observations about life and art and the reasons why make this book a masterpiece. And if that’s not enough, there’s an interesting little subplot involving a Polish novel that Bennie is translating - how it relates to Bennie’s life is seriously clever.