Most people have been trapped at an airport for at least a few hours. Usually that time is spent playing games on a smart phone, devouring Stieg Larsson novels or stirring an airport bar martini with an olive. But Benjamin R. Ford, the protagonist of Jonathan Miles’ first novel “Dear American Airlines,” hunkers down to compose a long letter (or short novella, if you so desire) to the eponymous airliner, demanding a refund and recounting his fractured life in some attempt at emotional catharsis.
Ford is on his way from New York to California to his estranged daughter’s wedding. During an increasingly long and unwanted bad weather layover at O’Hare in Chicago, Ford pens this letter, initially requesting a refund; he had already missed the rehearsal dinner, and each passing second brought him closer to missing the ceremony itself. Ford also spends several pages taking potshots at American Airlines and the airport itself, certainly a treat for the contemporary weary traveler. But Ford is a rambler, and he soon moves away from the $392.68 the airline owes him.
As he eventually recalls for the poor AA customer service employee charged with reading his epistle, his only offspring was the result of an ill-fated relationship in his early 20s. Working as a part-time poet and a full-time bartender in his hometown of New Orleans, Ford temporarily shacks up with Stella, a grad student and fellow bard. Their coupling doomed even from the start — Stella, Ford recounts, thought she could change his teetering-on-alcoholic ways — their relationship is (very) temporarily stabilized by an unintended pregnancy. Their daughter, also named Stella but adorably referred to as Speck by Ford, is, however, ultimately unable to keep her parents together. Although they don’t split for months after the event, Ford knew their days were numbered when Stella Sr. smashed their only water glass in his face, cutting both his skin and any hope for a future together.
Soon the rambling nature of the letter unfolds; he moves back in time to his New Orleans childhood, memories of his emotionally unstable mother and quiet Polish father. His father had been caught up in a Holocaust camp during the war, and with his new life in America he became an exterminator. Well, not entirely; Henryk Gniech (his original name, before unwittingly changing it to Henry Ford, the most American name he could think of) released any animals he caught, including a critter hiding in Ford’s mother’s attic, at the same dock he arrived at as an immigrant. Ford’s father provides most of the hearty and touching aspects of the narrative; especially memorable is his joke that later in life, as a mechanic on Ford automobiles, he was entering the “family business.”
Ford’s mother, on the other hand, is some kind of schizophrenic. When Ford was a child, Miss Willa, as she was known, would occasionally kidnap him and manage to drive several states away before giving up or failing on her journey. Ford recalls one trip inspired by Georgia O’Keefe to “the Faraway,” a magical land out west that so obviously did not exist that even as a child he questioned the veracity of their destination.
The novel is ripe with cultural commentary digressions and short chats with other trapped travelers shared over hastily smoked cigarettes. They usually serve no narrative purpose, but are sufferable nonetheless so as to lend some reality and legitimacy to a spontaneous 180-page refund request. Miles’ writing is engaging if sparse; the general lack of literary language is especially notable as Ford now works translating Polish fiction, and spends large swaths of the novel sharing translation tips and mulling over altering the original author’s diction.
For Ford, what started as a purely pragmatic correspondence morphed into cathartic journey into himself. “Dear American Airlines” uses a physical layover to promote an emotional layover, and although Ford started out angry at American Airlines, he probably should thank them for what insight he gleamed into his life while writing them, demanding a refund.