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Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
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A-Dear American AirlinesA columnist for the New York Times and Men’s Journal, Jonathan Miles takes a gamble on his debut novel, which is narrated in the form of an extended complaint letter.

The Story: After his flight is cancelled, recovering alcoholic and failed poet Bennie Ford pens a scathing letter to the airline responsible for stranding him in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport en route to his estranged daughter’s wedding in Los Angeles—his last chance, perhaps, to make amends. To emphasize the significance of this last, aborted attempt to become reconciled with his daughter, Bennie chronicles his past failures and mistakes amid droll observations about his fellow travelers and sections of the Polish WWII novel that he is being paid to translate. "I’m afraid you’ll have to permit me my digressions," explains Bennie. "Digressing, after all, is not so different from rerouting, and let’s not pretend, dear ones, that you’re innocent of that."
Houghton Mifflin. 180 pages. $22. ISBN: 0547054017

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Rage and a rambling self-narrative is a brutal barroom combination, best avoided on the page, too. But Miles is such a clever, amusing writer that he turns what should be a shtick into a terrifically fun read." John Freeman

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Turn to nearly any page and you’ll find a funny, smart, touching, wonderfully caustic or well-turned sentence or paragraph. … For all his foibles, Bennie never comes off as a sad sack." Porter Shreve

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"This first novel reveals a tremendous storytelling talent. … Dear American Airlines is a clever, bittersweet pleasure of a novel." Mike Kroner

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Ford is a sympathetic character, partly because of his many flaws, partly in spite of them. … Humor is a bulwark, too; on almost every page, Mr. Miles manages to make Ford laugh-out-loud funny." Steve Weinberg

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Miles’ novel is more than a harangue about the degradation of air travel; it’s a heartfelt exploration of one man’s psychic deterioration and the slim reed of hope to which, miraculously, he still clings. … It’s also very funny, not least because of Ford’s droll, deadpan delivery." David L. Ulin

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"I normally don’t like narratives marinated in alcohol and self-pity, but here it works because Benjamin isn’t macho about his drinking, and because the tragic details are grounded by brutal honesty and leavened by humor. … One of the many pleasures of Dear American Airlines is watching Benjamin’s and [the Polish soldier’s] stories finally dovetail in a way that’s not just philosophically but emotionally rewarding." Richard Russo

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Slowly we begin to learn about the real sources of Ford’s misery, in a long, thoroughly amusing and ultimately poignant howl about life’s injustices—those he has suffered and those he has committed. … In the appealingly loose logic of the letter, an emotionally wrenching scene can be followed by a back-at-the-airport aside." Scott Morris

Critical Summary

Every critic was at first skeptical of this epistolary "gimmick novel" about a self-pitying, if lovable, loser, but by the end, all agreed that "the concept works beautifully" (Los Angeles Times). Miles’s effort produced an intelligent, playful, and, above all, moving story full of humor and well-written digressions. Bennie is a remarkably flawed but sympathetic man, and though his hilarious asides may not always advance the storyline, they certainly contribute to the fun. The only point of contention among the critics was the Polish novel-within-a-novel, praised by the New York Times but panned by the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times as ineffective and unnecessary. Short enough to read during a lengthy layover, this affecting and laugh-out-loud-funny tirade should stay with readers long after they’ve reached their final destinations.