When I was in junior high, my church youth group held what were called “lock-ins”-essentially chaperoned coed sleepovers that were less about Jesus than about giving our parents a night off. From 9 at night to 9 in the morning, some 60 kids aged 13 to 18 were locked inside the church gymnasium with a few brave adults, plenty of popcorn and soda, and a TV showing something religious like, say, Batman. It sounds like a pretty tame party, but for me, staying up all night, plus the forced intimacy of confinement, plus the fog of hormones that thickened as the hours ticked away, made lock-ins intoxicating. As a natural-born people-watcher, I’d tuck myself into a corner, prop my notebook on my knees, and watch my peers like the owner of some adolescent ant farm, scribbling my observations, my free associations, and, God help me, my feelings. So many feelings.
In this way, my junior high self was a kindred spirit to Benjamin R. Ford, the anti-hero of Jonathan Miles’ debut novel, Dear American Airlines, except that Ford’s lock-in lasts 30 hours and takes place in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, and he hates it. Ford, an ex-poet-barfly-translator, is stranded on the way to his estranged daughter’s commitment ceremony and passes the time by writing a letter to the titular airline. The letter, which comprises the full text of Dear American Airlines, is by turns obnoxious, contrived, cloying, tender, pathetic, and, very occasionally, hilarious-in other words, juvenile. It’s perhaps better edited than my adolescent scrawlings by the stuttering TV light, but only just.
First, there’s the structural issue. Ford’s letter braids together the “real-time” plot (a play-by-play of goings-on at the constipated airport), two back stories (the history of his parents’ marriage and the story of his own failed unions), and, to add gravitas, I suppose, excerpts from a novel Ford is translating from the Polish about a soldier named Walenty.
Since Ford is the letter’s real audience (he’s writing it to amuse himself more than to communicate), whenever Ford gets bored-and, it would follow, the audience’s attention threatens to slip-Miles has Ford jump the tracks into another tale. He’s overt about this. “Mind if we check in with Walenty?” he asks by way of transition. But Ford is also self-conscious about it. He calls himself out on his own digressions even as he relies on them to propel the book. “Anyway, I apologize for that sideways waltz into the story of my beginnings,” he writes. “It’s clear I should’ve been a Russian novelist: I can’t even write a fucking refund request without detailing my lineage.”
This highlights another problem: The letter format allows Ford-Miles to interrupt, interpret, and comment on his own writing as he goes. Because the letter’s author, protagonist, and narrator are all the same person, and that person is a professional word nerd, Miles apparently feels justified in subjecting readers to his self-conscious obsession with language. The book opens with a built-in revision of just this sort:
“My name is Benjamin R. Ford and I am writing to request a refund in the amount of $392.68. But then, no, scratch that: Request is too mincy & polite, I think, too officious & Britishy, a word that walks along the page with the ramrod straightness of someone trying to balance a walnut on his upper ass cheeks. Yet what am I saying? Words don’t have ass cheeks!”
And on like that.
Normally an author might consider each of those descriptors (mincy, polite, Britishy, officious, ramrod straightness with walnut etc.) and pick the one that best does the job. But Ford-Miles throws them all in. There’s a lot of this-literary onanism on Miles’ part passing for character development on Ford’s. Miles seems to think that Ford is such a tool that readers will believe any ridiculous detail. For example, Ford is an alcoholic, smokes Lucky Strikes, wears a tweed cap, types on an old Underwood, and says he was “raised by poetry,” by Keats, the Beats, and (big shock) Bukowski.
Finally, Ford just isn’t very likable. There’s no crime in having a total failure for a protagonist, in making him try too hard, indulge himself, plead for attention, and then insult his audience-since Martin Amis, it’s practically de rigueur-as long as there’s a payoff for the reader. A cameo doesn’t count as a payoff. Here, Ford describes his imagined reader: an American Airlines employee housed at company headquarters in Fort Worth:
“I suspect you’re young, or youngish; sifting through the corporate slush pile is the stuff of an entry-level gig, of the ladder’s lower rungs. I imagine you think of your life that way, too: as a ladder which you’ve just begun to climb. Allow me to take a wild stab, with apologies up front for any errant shots. You’re a native Texan, or at most Oklahoman, Fort Worth’s radius of allure being somewhat limited. As a corporate citizen, I suspect you’re a traditionalist, a casual God-fearer, perhaps the recent graduate of one of Texas’s fine universities. Maybe the University of Dallas (I did a reading there once), or perhaps Midwestern State-a no-nonsense school, a sensible campus, one of those hatcheries for the big corporate pools. The transparency of your future, the way it can be quantified, is a comfort to you. To be frank I envy you: You aren’t victimized by your daydreams …”
Oh, but there’s more.
“Plus so much else to do in life, oh the hours can’t contain it! Your mother is calling. Your oil needs changing. Your aunt’s birthday is Saturday. The folks at work want to meet up at T.G.I. Friday’s again-hey, why not, they’re a great crew. Your college pals are emailing-forwarded jokes and inspirational messages, you can’t keep up. Yet you’re still with me-for reasons known only to you, you’re listening.”
Trouble is, if I weren’t being paid to read Dear American Airlines, I wouldn’t be listening. But while I can’t stop reading, I can clap my hands on either side of my face like Macaulay Culkin and exclaim, “Oh my God! What cutting and original satire! You’ve made me see what’s wrong with my life!”
It would be unfair not to acknowledge the book’s moments of beauty, as when Ford’s father reads poetry to him in his native Polish: “… he would lie next to me at bedtime and recite reams of lilting, beautifully incomprehensible poems. … For me, it was lingual white noise, those Polish consonant endings like evanescent static, whispers of shhh, the rise and fall of octosyllabic verses rocking me to sleep as pitching seas lull a sailor.”
Ford is better at loving poetry than producing it, though; his immaturity and anxiety overwhelm his surges of sincerity. That this is probably Miles’ intention doesn’t make it any more appealing. Ford keeps reiterating his incredulity that his audience of one is still reading, and his disbelief is well earned. Miles might reasonably share it. Ultimately, Dear American Airlines is only as redeemable as its protagonist, which is to say, not very.