Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"Dear American Airlines" by Jonathan Miles

"Bennie Ford, a fifty-three-year-old failed poet turned translator, is traveling to his estranged daughter's wedding when his flight is canceled. Stuck with thousands of fuming passengers in the purgatory of O'Hare International Airport, he watches the clock tick and realizes that he will miss the ceremony. Frustrated, irate, and helpless, Bennie does the only thing he can: he starts to write a letter. But what begins as a hilariously excoriating demand for a refund soon becomes a lament for a life gone awry, for years misspent, talent wasted, and happiness lost. A man both sinned against and sinning, Bennie writes in a voice that is a marvel of lacerating wit, heart-on-sleeve emotion, and wide-ranging erudition, underlined by a consistent groundnote of remorse for the actions of a lifetime - and made all the more urgent by the fading hope that if he can just make it to the wedding, he might have a chance to do something right."

My coworker wanted to read this so badly she got it from a library system one county over since she ponied up and got a card for them, too. (Her hubby works in said county, so it's not like they're out wasting gas or anything.) She said it was really good, so when our system bought a copy, I decided to give it a shot. Obviously, she and I have very different tastes, as I found it to be more of an exercise to get through - and this is not a long book by any means, clocking in at a mere 180 pages (the book is also smaller than your standard hardback, so call it more like 150 pages of regular-page-sized text).

I greatly enjoyed Bennie's rants against American Airlines; I think everyone has had at least one stranded-and-weary traveler story, be it an airline fiasco or otherwise. Mine was long ago and involved a car part, one that took an "overnight shipment" to obtain out in New Mexico, a part that had we had a working car would've taken me just an hour or so to obtain on my own. I could very much relate to Bennie's frustration at being stranded when he had an important engagement, especially when his letter to the airlines says that the "delay due to weather" excuse holds no water with him since the sun is out. I think most of us have wanted to demand a refund of our time, our money or both in such situations.

Where the story failed me was in Bennie's tangent ramblings about his own life. To put it bluntly, Bennie is a loser, and he's one of those losers that blames pretty much everyone else for his sad-sack existence. His mother and father should have never met, and even if they did, they should have never ended up together except for the fact that his mother became pregnant with him. His mother didn't really love his father, his father was there but not there (a fact I would highly argue against after reading Bennie's own words), his mother suffered from mental illness and had several "episodes" that put her in the hospital, etc. All of this childhood drama leads Bennie to his current existence, one of basically sleepwalking through life. And we can't forget his own dalliance with Stella, a fellow poet, which resulted in their daughter Stella, she of the aforementioned wedding. Bennie hasn't seen Speck (as he called her during her infancy, probably being the most honest he's been about his feelings for the girl) since she was mere months old; Bennie and Stella Sr had a rollicking argument (one of many) and the ladies moved out to California to live with Stella Sr's parents. Bennie's letter makes it sound like Stella Sr. was very much to blame for the break-up, but keep in mind that Bennie is also a raging alcoholic. Or maybe it would have been better if he was "raging" - mostly he just got drunk and failed to come home. Or be there for Speck's birth. Or be anywhere when he was supposed to be.

Bennie is not what I consider to be a sympathetic character, and as such it took me a long time to get through this minuscule work. I understand what the author was going for, the whole introspective look at one's life when one is forced to spend time waiting and can do little else, but I can't say this is a good book. The author employs some interesting word styling, and there are humorous sections (again when Bennie is ranting against the airline itself) but overall I have to give this one a thumbs down.

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