With Dear American Airlines, author Jonnie Miles fires a cannon shot across the bow of the travel industry on behalf of frustrated, exhausted, haunted people everywhere…or at least that is the first impression. The book is written in the form of a consumer complaint letter, but it doesn’t take long for the deficiencies of the airline to give way as an elegy emerges to a life slid asunder. Narrator Benny Ford tells the story with black humor, tinged with a gentle sadness and a hopelessness that caused this reader to wince.
After boarding a plane to attend the wedding of his daughter whom he abandoned 20 years before, the flight is inexplicably delayed, then cancelled. Recently sobered up after a lifetime of alcoholism and almost complete passivity, Ford has been contemplating suicide, pondering the turns of his life and his personal shortcomings in an effort to add up the years. With a sudden, unexpected shot at redemption in the eyes of his daughter laid before him, he reacts with uncharacteristic vigor. For Bennie is planning his attendance with the view that it will be his final act, coming full circle to the time when he drunkenly promised to someday walk his infant girl down the aisle.
But Benny won’t be leaving a completely hollow life behind – we are introduced to his southern gothic portrait of a mother, a schizophrenic whose mental illness was miraculously cured by a massive stroke. While curing her psychosis and suicidal tendencies, the stroke crippled Miss Willa, and she was forced to move in with her son. New Orleans, insanity and alcoholism figure strongly in the novel, and Miles paints its characters with care, playing for laughs but never stripping them of their dignity.
Recounting a childhood scene in which his mother attempts suicide, young Bennie is watching older boys place street baseball as his father tears out of the driveway for the hospital. He continues watching as the golden hour draws to a close; the boys drift home one by one and are replaced by “ghost men”, the imaginery players of our childhoods, ‘till at last, they too fade away, and he is alone. This scene provides a vivid metaphor for Ford’s life; he is the ghost man, watching absently, numbly, as people step away from him and move on with their lives. The mother figure is properly blamed for any number of things, including her son’s depression, but her biggest sin is instilling poetic grandeur in her son. Her gift of the ability to conjure pitiful self-delusions gives him the sharp tools he needs to become an expert alcoholic.
Bennie’s stint in rehab robbed him of a reason to live, but not of his sense of humor, and the book crackles with gallows humor and vivid descriptions. Mile’s love of language and the classics is woven into the narrative by an unusual device – he switches back and forth between the present tale and that of a book that Bennie is translating in which the hero dreams of inventing a new life. It’s a bit jarring at times, but original in execution.
Something begins to happen as Bennie’s of his life comes to a close. As he mulls over his existence thus far, he realizes what he has been blind to all along. The world of possibility comes slowly to him, and not without a rather protracted struggle, but by the end of the book he has indeed come full circle. Perhaps not back to the promise of his drunken youth (when he vowed to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding) but to the infinity of options one faces at a new beginning.