Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Every once in a while, I read a review of a book I must immediately run right out and pick up--and, more to the point, read. Such was the case Friday, when the NYT Book Review--a version of which I get via e-mail--came and featured a review of a first novel by Jonathan Miles called Dear American Airlines, a somewhat epistolary novel written in the form of a complaint to the titular airline for stranding the complainant overnight in O'Hare Airport. Given my recent misadventures with air travel (my irrational fear of flying has been defeated and replaced by a perfectly rational fear of airlines), this book struck me as a must-read. So I ran out yesterday morning, found it, and, it being a rainy afternoon, curled up and zipped through it.

The premise is that the narrator/complainant, Benjamin Ford, is a middle-aged not so much Beat as beaten New Orleans poet, whose muse died some decades earlier, and now lives in New York City eking out a living as a translator of Polish novels. In his youth, he fell in love with Stella, and they had a daughter, Stella Jr., and his drinking and general blaséness about life ultimately alienated them, and the Stellas (Stella Jr. being less than a year old) fled to California. Benjamin has had no contact with his daughter ever since--and now, he gets an invitation to her imminent wedding and believes that it will be his one chance to atone for all the sins of fatherly absence. However, thanks to American Airlines, his flight is abruptly diverted to Chicago (Peoria, actually, though they bus him and the other passengers to O'Hare), where all remaining flights have been cancelled because of "bad weather." ("Since when do you cancel flights in mid-air?" the complainant asks.) And thus, in his rage, he begins the excoriating letter (which is really quite a satisfying read for anyone who has ever been shafted by an airline), which soon turns into a discursive autobiography.

It turns out that the extended layover turns O'Hare Airport into a kind of purgatory, and as anyone who has ever been stuck in an airport knows, it's rather like a fermata wherein time slows to the point of stoppage (Benjamin also wonders, quite rightly, if memory serves, why there are so few clocks in airports) which gives him the opportunity to reflect on his life. Alongside his own narrative he also digresses and presents chunks of the novel he is translating, a story of a Polish World War II veteran who lost a leg at the battle of Anzio and, since his country barely exists anymore, he wanders Trieste. The Polish narrative increasingly dovetails with Benjamin's own story, ultimately resolving themselves at the end of the book.

If it were just a scathing indictment of airline incompetence, the book would be good enough, but that Jonathan Miles takes the premise even further is what elevates the novel. Yes, it is extremely funny; every page has some great one-liners and observations (a meditation on why there is never graffiti in airport rest rooms, where one would think you would find the bitterest, grumpiest, complaint-oriented people; how uncomfortable airport seating is--"this place is well-armed against comfort"; and imagining the corporate grunt sitting in his cubicle reading this extended missive). But it is also extraordinarily thought-provoking and poignant.

At first blush, this seems like the kind of book that could have been written in probably as long as it took to read (which was really just a few hours), but it's for more complex than it appears; metaphors and return, recur, and pay off; various narratives intertwine; it's really quite impressive. And at the end, you kind of wonder whether or not the layover wasn't the best thing that ever happened to Benjamin.

It's odd how such a slim, simple little book can be so profound, enjoyable, and really stay with you for a while. I'm surprised there hasn't been the threat of a lawsuit from American Airlines, which would actually be a good thing since it would give the book the publicity it so richly deserves.

1 comment:

Captain Tom said...

Maybe the book will help people believe there really is reason to fear flying, but there is a big difference between fearing inconvenience and something a lot worse.

If fear of flying is a problem, there is a lot of good reading at http://www.fearofflying.com/wordpress/