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A Novel Complaint: 'Dear American Airlines'


When you're stuck in an airport for hours and hours and you have no idea when you're going to get sprung, you look for something to pass the time, and a new novel by Jonathan Miles, the narrator wiles away his nightmare of a layover by penning a blistering scree (ph) to the airline that is stuck him in his own version of purgatory. It's called "Dear American Airlines," although the tone of the letter is not that friendly.

Benny Ford is stuck at O'Hare Airport, waiting for the flight that will reunite him with his estranged daughter, and he has lots of time to examine where his life went wrong. Jonathan Miles, who wrote "Dear American Airlines," also writes the "Shaken & Stirred" column for the New York Times. He didn't take the bait when I asked if his debut novel owes a debt to the epistolary dirigible novels of the 1930s, but he did cite a real book as one of his influences.

Mr. JONATHAN MILES (Author, "Dear American Airlines;" "Shaken & Stirred," New York Times): I think I trace it back to the book of Job...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: The book of...

Mr. MILES: You know, just the idea of howling at the sky for...

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. MILES: Real life's travails.

PESCA: I was thinking about you as the novelist and how once you had this idea, I don't know when it hit you, you'll tell me that, but you're like, hey, you know what I'll do? I'll write a book about a guy who's stuck in an airport. And the great thing is, every time you're stuck in an airport you say, great, I can use this in the book. But now that the book is written, what the hell do you do?

Mr. MILES: You know, it's funny, though. Since writing the book, my airline experiences have taken this incredibly pleasant turn. I don't know. Maybe I've exorcised my airline demon.

PESCA: Or are you on that list of people they know not to screw over?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILES: Could be, too.

PESCA: What came first? I'm going to write a book about a guy who's stuck? Or I'm going to write a book about this guy, and then you decided, hey, I'll make it in the form of a letter to an airline?

Mr. MILES: No. What happened was I was stuck, and I was stuck in O'Hare, just as Benny, my narrator, is stuck. I was flying to New York from Memphis. I used to live in Mississippi. And I'm, you know, I'm overnight in O'Hare. It's one of those terrible O'Hare strandings, you know, where you have this sea of consumer refugees, and everybody's sleeping on cardboard boxes, and cots, and all this stuff. And it's, you know, it's that nightmare that we see on the news and pretty much we're all experiencing. And I'm writing this enraged letter in my head to American Airlines because, you know, I'm angry. But I didn't really have the justification, you know, for my rage. And it's that weird rage that you feel, you know, when you're on hold with someone for some company for 45 minutes, and you finally get a person on the line, and you just want to chew their nose off.

But I started looking around the airport at three a.m. or so and started thinking, well, all right, well, what would this rage that I'm feeling, what would that sound like if I actually had something riding on this flight? If there was, you know, and I'm looking around the airport, and I know there are people that are missing something essential, funerals, weddings, that sort of thing, job interviews, you know, what would that rage sound like? And, you know, what if is the big, you know, the central question of fiction, so it was, you know, what if? And that's when Benny popped in my head, a man who did have quite a lot riding on making the flight.

PESCA: He needed to get to his daughter's wedding, and his daughter is marrying another woman, and Benn doesn't quite know how to process that. And he also - he hasn't seen his daughter in, like, what, 25 years?

Mr. MILES: Yeah. Benny's got a lot to process.

PESCA: Yeah. Yeah. A lot to process. It's also he's a bit of a drinker.

Mr. MILES: He was. Yes. He's - Benny's got a lot of - he's got a lot of skeletons, you know, rattling around in his closet. And - and they all seem to - they all seem to pop out in this long night - dark night of the soul in O'Hare.

PESCA: Are you the kind of flyer who talks to the guy next to him when you fly? Have you ever come across a Benny?

Mr. MILES: Yeah. I've come across a Benny and to be honest, I tend to avoid them. I tend to, you know, want to pretend that I speak another language. You know, sometimes to get these people, especially on these, you know, long - I remember flying to Australia once and sitting next to a man who would just not - you know? And it wasn't that - I certainly love listening to people's stories and airports and airplanes are great places to listen to stories, but like anything else, there are good stories and there are boring stories.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. MILES: You know? And there are times I want to just, you know, sort of make up a pretend language and pretend I can't read English, but then I can't read a book.

PESCA: Right. I find that the people who talk to you in the airport - in airlines or on a long flight, they're not the most horrible people. They're not the greatest people. They're exactly right in the middle of the bell curve of human existence, and that is what drives you the craziest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILES: That's right. That's right. And you know, it's interesting now, because, you know, it used to be that you were on a plane of people, and you would have actually, you know, interesting conversations. People tell you life stories. People tell you things they did for a living, and it seems like the central topic now of passengers on a plane or in an airport is just trading complaints about the experience, these horror stories that are, you know, being passed back and forth like baseball cards. PESCA: Do you think there's something about air travel, because I do, that is not just annoying, but for a man, emasculating in that it takes away your power? You have to give up your power to some unseen force.

Mr. MILES: I can guess I can see that, to some sense. And there is this great feeling of helplessness, and that's, you know, where this air rage, I think, comes from. And there's also this total lack of any sort of, you know, honesty from these airlines in customer service that can - that, you know, that can at least, you know, ameliorate the situation. And that's what kind of what I wanted together with Benny was this idea of being so helpless and so outraged in such a position that he just wanted to, you know, raise his arms and howl at the sky.

And you know, one of the things that was sort of entertaining in my head was, you know, you know, OK, what is the - what does the godless man do, you know, when he wants to blame the faiths, when he wants to blame the invisible forces, these malevolent forces, you know, for the travails of his life? And well, you know, if he doesn't have God to complain to, maybe you've got this other monolithic megalithic presence, this giant multinational corporation that seems to be thwarting him.

PESCA: There is that dichotomy in air travel. I mean, it's kind of amazing. You get to go across the country in a couple hours but kind of, what's the opposite of amazing? Totally frustrating in that everything about...

Mr. MILES: Well, to me, I mean, it does seem like a miracle, and Benny kind of gets that at sort of the end. I don't want to do a plot spoiler, but it is. When you step back and you think about, you know, this idea that we can - that Benny could, in fact, you know, make it to his daughter's wedding, or at least try to, or expect to, let's say, I mean, you know, that is a miracle of technology, and that we can do this.

And I guess what the frustrating part is, and you know, here's Benny's frustration, too. There's such potential. And it seems to be so, you know, mangled and mishandled by the airline industry. And it's not - this is not a worldwide problem. This seems to be an American problem. You know, you don't have this kind of air rage in Europe, in Asia. You don't have these, you know, this grumbling, this grouching, over there. So, it's this particularly American problem and feting.

PESCA: Is one of the reasons that you made the book 180 pages, so that you could read it on a cross-country flight with, you know, minimal delays, read the whole thing?

Mr. MILES: What I did think is that, OK, you've got this, you know, incredibly long letter to an airline. And so, you're pushing readers, you know, willing suspension of disbelief just a bit with the 180-page complaint letter, but I knew that if I passed the 200-page mark, I'd lose them completely. So, it was, you know, that was basically my goal. I had to keep it under 200. I had to squeeze it all in there, but if I went over 200, then I realized, then, you know, nobody's going to buy it.

PESCA: Of course, font size does come into play at a certain point.

Mr. MILES: Yeah.

PESCA: Yeah. All right. Jonathan Miles is the author of "Dear American Airlines." He also writes the "Shaken & Stirred" column for the New York Times, and he's also the book columnist for Men's Journal. Thanks a lot, Jonathan.

Mr. MILES: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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