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Fictional Airline Passenger Disgruntled with Life


Bennie Ford is stuck on a plane at Chicago O'Hare caught in some purgatory between coasts and a life filled with regrets and the wedding of the daughter whom he barely knows. He checks the departure board for updates. He shifts in pinching plastic seats he calls O'Chairs. He trades small talk with his fellow passenger internees. And finally, he starts writing a letter of complaint to American Airlines demanding a refund. But within a few pages, it becomes apparent that the real refund Bennie Ford would like is on his life.

"Dear American Airlines" is the title of Jonathan Miles' new novel. It has been praised by writers as diverse as Jim Harrison and Elizabeth Gilbert. Mr. Miles, who is the cocktail columnist for the New York Times - and did you even know they had one? - and the book columnist for Men's Journal - did you even know that they had one? - joins us from the studios of WCPN in Cleveland. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JONATHAN MILES (Author, "Dear American Airlines"): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Was it a specific flight that inspired you, or more like a hundred?

Mr. MILES: It was a specific flight, although there's the - influenced by hundreds of terrible ones. I was flying from Memphis, near where I lived at the time, to New York. And instead of going to O'Hare for my 45-minute layover, we landed in Peoria, were put on this secret bus line that the airlines keep, bused to O'Hare where there's this now-familiar scene of hundreds of consumer refugees, some people sleeping on cardboard boxes, appliance-sized cardboard boxes. We had no idea how they procured those in the airport, but they had them. I was jealous.

And I spent the night under the table at the Wolfgang Puck restaurant in O'Hare. I started composing this enraged letter to American Airlines on my own behalf. The problem was I didn't have the situation to justify this rage. You know, it's that rage you feel when you're on hold for 45 minutes, this sort of disproportionate rage. But I'm looking around the airport thinking somebody is missing something essential, somebody is watching a last chance at something slip away. And I wondered what that rage would sound like. And then was born Bennie.

SIMON: Let's talk a bit about Bennie. He's 53. A frustrated-to-failed poet, translator and a very unfulfilled father.

Mr. MILES: Bennie is trying to get to the wedding of a daughter he hasn't seen in 27 years, when she was basically an infant. To his mind, this is perhaps his last chance to atone for a great number of sins and to make things right.

SIMON: He surprises his daughter, the reader, and perhaps for that matter, even himself when he impulsively asks his daughter on the phone, can I walk you down the aisle?

Mr. MILES: Yeah. This is an old promise he made to her before she even could understand the words of a promise, but just something you say to a little, tiny baby girl. He said, I'm going to hate it one day when I walk you down the aisle. Nobody seems to remember this line except Bennie, but he has latched onto it, you know, in the manner of somebody clinging to driftwood in the ocean. And that line, that old promise, is what he thinks might redeem him. And unfortunately, the airline steps in.

SIMON: As we noted, you're the drink columnist for The New York Times.

Mr. MILES: Yes.

SIMON: Cocktails come in for some roles in this book, don't they?

Mr. MILES: Bennie is an alcoholic. In some sense that might seem hard to reconcile the fact that, you know, I write about cocktails in a celebratory way, and I'm writing about Bennie in just the opposite. But for me, alcohol has this endless fascination that there's this substance that can enhance life so beautifully and destroy it so completely. I think it's why I tend to enjoy finding stories in bars for The Times and for Bennie. This is where you see people very often at their happiest and their saddest, at their best and at their worst. You know, that's just fascinating to me that this substance can do all that.

SIMON: In his conversations with his daughter - and he's a man of words, he's a translator, literary translator, has been a poet - he often finds himself sounding stupid. I mean, the one area of expertise that you would think he still has at his command.

Mr. MILES: Bennie has a love and a grasp on language except when language is most necessary. He can find the words for pretty much anything except for these things that actually matter. And he's able to construct this alternate life, this alternate universe, and I think it's his great flaw. And I think we all, to some degree, do this. And it's the sin that Camus wrote of, you know, the sin against life in hoping for another life or waiting for another life. And Bennie constructs this alternate universe, this alternate sense of who he is. And when he's forced to actually face reality, he doesn't have the language for it. He doesn't have the words for it.

SIMON: I think it's safe to say that the purgatory metaphor looms large in your book.

Mr. MILES: It does. And I find airports to be purgatorial in many ways. I mean, even from the basics of the design. You know, this sort of, this muted gray and the fluorescent lights. As Dante wrote, that in purgatory, nobody casts a shadow. And it just seems like airports are the shadowless places. And you have instead of the guards with their swords, you have your TSA screeners. But also that worked for Bennie because this truly is a very purgatorial moment for Bennie. And metaphorically speaking, you know, this is the moment where he decides more or less whether he ascends or descends.

SIMON: He's an expert in Eastern European languages and literature.

Mr. MILES: His father was Polish and a survivor of a labor camp, a Nazi labor camp. He came to the U.S. and married a New Orleans woman after pregnancy, and informally taught him Polish. And Bennie thinks of this as a sort of magical incantatory language that his father gave to him, the one gift that his father was able to give to him. His father died young. And that is the one thing he's been able to cling to. I see Bennie as almost being contaminated by literature.

Bennie's misguided romanticism comes - you know, this ideal, as Pablo Neruda wrote, that you should run through the streets howling, wielding a green knife. And Bennie was the type to read that and think, oh, well I need a green knife. To take literature quite literally, being almost infected by literature but at the same time, maybe, brought out of that, and by literature as well. And this comes from a Polish novel that he's intermittently translating or at least, you know, dipping into while he's stranded.

SIMON: And I think we can say this carefully. His daughter, whose wedding he's trying to reach, was a surprise.

Mr. MILES: Yes, yes. His daughter was a surprise. As Bennie was an accident, so too was his daughter. An accident begat an accident. This was not the life. This was not the life that Bennie had planned for himself. He wanted poetic languor. He wanted this sort of - the ecstasy of languishing and this artistic liberty and existence. And then he found himself with, you know, trying to figure out how to - which way a diaper goes.

SIMON: And upbraided for not knowing the right way.

Mr. MILES: That's right, that's right. So he fled. And years later now, he's looking back at what he did and trying to come back as best he can.

SIMON: Jonathan Miles. His new novel is "Dear American Airlines." Mr. Miles, awfully nice talking to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. MILES: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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