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Sunday, June 22, 2008

DEAR AMERICAN AIRLINES

By Jonathan Miles

Houghton Mifflin. 180 pp. $22

Jonathan Miles's deliciously cynical first novel, Dear American Airlines, challenges the axiom that all publicity is good publicity. The airlines can't appreciate the poison pen letter that the novel's disgruntled hero, Benjamin ("Bennie") Ford, writes while stranded at O'Hare Airport for what had promised to be the most important day of his life: the chance to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding.

Granted, it's not a wedding exactly but a "commitment ceremony." The daughter is gay, and she doesn't entirely trust the chain-smoking, barroom-brawling progenitor she hasn't seen since she was an infant. But Bennie, sober now, is eager to make amends. Instead, he finds himself stuck at O'Hare, "the sacrificial goat of air travel," with plenty of time to tell American Airlines why he's mad and isn't gonna take it anymore.

Bennie is an ex-poet and ex-bartender from New Orleans, "where cirrhosis of the liver is listed as 'Natural Causes' on a death certificate." His mother was a schizophrenic painter fond of weird suicide attempts. His father was a Polish immigrant who survived Dachau only to wind up working as an exterminator in his adopted homeland. Two failed marriages down -- one so short that he "used the same bath towel for its entire duration" -- Bennie now cares for his mother in a New York apartment and earns his living as a translator of Eastern European fiction. In fact, chunks of Bennie's current translation assignment, a mournful Polish novel about a World War II veteran waylaid in Trieste, are included for ironic counterpoint.

"It's clear I should've been a Russian novelist," Bennie says, apologizing for his digressions. It might be long for a letter, but as a novel, Dear American Airlines is refreshingly snappy and sassy. Describing a nice night with his first wife (unfortunately named Stella -- a difficult name to shout when you're locked out of the house in New Orleans), Bennie says, "To me the evening looked and felt like peace -- not domestic d├ętente, but the real thing. A field of lavender, a northern lake at dawn. Or whatever air-freshener imagery best evokes peace." There's also great comedy about the indignities of air travel: the ritual of security, the camaraderie with fellow stranded sufferers.

The novel's loose structure allows Miles to riff on everything from 9/11 and middle-age malaise to toilet-stall graffiti and the gecko in Geico commercials, while slyly moving his hero toward something of an epiphany. By the time Bennie finally collapses into Seat 31D, his readers have had quite a journey.

-- Lisa Zeidner's most recent novel is "Layover." She directs the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers University.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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