DEAR AMERICAN AIRLINES by Jonathan Miles (Houghton Mifflin), 180 pages, $24.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
It was Kingsley Amis who firmly established the alcoholic misanthrope as a literary leading man, a comic cocktail of self-loathing and bad habits redeemed by his scathing verbal gifts and soft heart.
Just such a character is Benjamin R. Ford, narrator of Dear American Airlines. A failed poet of middling academic rank, now a translator of obscure Polish literature, he finds himself stranded at Chicago's O'Hare Airport in the mother of all layovers while trying to attend his estranged daughter's wedding.
Ford's epistolary tirade to the airline starts off targeting an imaginary official in four languages, moves on to make quick work of the contemporary American wasteland that is O'Hare and then drifts into a sad and occasionally bemused reflection on his life so far.
That life has been a series of missteps and romantic failures featuring his beautiful, schizophrenic mother in New Orleans, a youth spent in boozy poetic dissolution, capped by a brief attempt at fatherhood and marriage. Now he's cresting his 50s, has long since given up sobriety and lives with his debilitated mother in a tiny New York apartment.
Excerpts from the novel The Free State Of Trieste, which Ford is translating, are interspersed through his letter. That book follows a veteran amputee who fails to return home, opting instead for a permanent vacation in a small seaside town. Like Ford, he suffers from irreparable losses and an inability to settle. The echoes are poignant.
While Ford (and this reader) can't decide if he's a literary hero of the once hard-drinking romantic school or a self-involved narcissist plundering the lives of those around him for their artistic and dramatic value, he is a compelling and likeable character.
In the end, we're rooting for him to make his flight.