It was 2000.
Miles, who was living in Oxford, Miss. at the time, was flying from Memphis to New York to visit friends when his flight was inexplicably canceled en route.
“And the weather was beautiful,” Miles recalls. “I think if there’s a storm over Denver, [the airlines] can use it as an excuse to shut down everything.”
Miles found himself lying under a table in a Wolfgang Puck restaurant at O’Hare, enraged at being stranded.
However, his writer’s brain quickly went to work.
After all, Miles thought, he was only on a pleasure trip.
He wasn’t trying to make it to a reunion or business meeting.
He figured that somewhere in that airport there was someone who was missing something crucial. What would that angry voice sound like?
“My rage was incommensurate with the situation, but I was thinking, what if the situation equaled the rage, and I started fictionalizing in a letter I was writing in my head,” Miles says.
That’s where Bennie stepped in, Bennie Ford, that is.
Bennie is a failed poet and alcoholic, now roughing out a living as a translator, who (like Miles) gets stuck in O’Hare when his flight from New York to Los Angeles is cancelled for what seems to him like no good reason.
Bennie realizes he may not make it to L.A. in time for his estranged daughter’s wedding (or “commitment ceremony,” since his daughter’s betrothed is a woman). He begins writing an angry letter to the airline to demand a refund, but the letter quickly becomes a lament for his wasted talent and wasted life and the chance he squandered to make a family with his wife and daughter.
A funny, moving epistolary novel, Dear American Airlines was recently published in paperback. I spoke to Miles during his recent appearance at Alabama Booksmith in Homewood.
Bennie really wants to make it to the wedding, to finally do something right, however small. “He’s is making a stab at some sort of redemption, some grace note in his life,” Miles says.
Bennie is also venting his anger over the direction his life has taken. “Think of it as Job, howling at the sky, asking God why he deserved this fate,” Miles says. “And what would Job do if he didn’t believe in God? If a godless man is staring at the sky howling, who’s he howling at? The most megalithic, monolithic power that Bennie could find was the airline.”
“Bennie grew in bits and spurts,” Miles says, when I ask him to tell me how the character came to be. “I knew he had to have some relation with literature, with writing, to allow me to write for him this way. He couldn’t be an accountant. Making him a former confessional poet gave me license. It was plausible that he would write a 250-page letter.” And Bennie’s voice wouldn’t let go of Miles. “Once he starts, I just grab on for dear life,” Miles says.
Of course, writing a novel, at least a good one, is never this easy. “I couldn’t just have Bennie ranting for 180 to 200 pages,” Miles says. “When my agent first read a portion of the novel, he said, ‘I don’t think this can be a novel. This is a punk song, and there’s a reason punk songs are only 3 minutes.’ And he was right, if Bennie had simply gone on like he did the first 20 pages, but I tried to balance that rage with his back story.”
So Bennie also tells us (or, more specifically, American Airlines) about growing up in New Orleans with his father, a Polish immigrant who loved America so much he changed his name to Henry Ford, and his mom, a doomed romantic named Willa who repeatedly attempted suicide and took her son with her on ill-fated attempts to escape her boring life with Henry.
In addition to this back story, Miles found a third thread with which to weave the novel. During his layover, Bennie is reading a Polish novel he is translating. Called The Free State of Trieste, it tells the story of a soldier named Walenty who is wounded in World War II. “I wanted Bennie to have a pressure valve in the book, instead of constantly screaming,” Miles says. “It started just as a stage prop, to put something in his hands."
Miles skillfully juxtaposes bits of Bennie’s personal story and the bits of Walenty’s story that Bennie is reading. There is one particularly moving segue from a brutal verbal mauling of Bennie by his wife Stella (“Get away from us,” she screams; “us” including their daughter, Stella Jr.) to a depiction of Walenty having his leg blown off by German artillery. But Miles leaves it to his readers to manufacture their own meanings.
“I didn’t want to tie it in too neatly, because I don’t think that often happens in life,” Mile says. “When we ask Bennie questions, we don’t tend to get the exact answer we’re looking for. But this was a way of having Bennie see a reflection, even oblique, of his situation and maybe helping lift him back from the edge.”
His depictions of Ford’s drinking and its deleterious effects seem painfully accurate and detailed. I asked him if he had done research regarding alcoholism or was perhaps drawing on personal experience. “Ah, I’ve been around it all my life,” he says. “I grew up in a family of alcoholics, friends."
Miles is fascinated with alcohol and its effects. “Alcohol is this mysterious substance where it can bring people to their lowest and to their highest, and it’s one of the reasons I have always though bars are such a great place to find stories,” he says. “You see people at their very best and at their very worst, and so since I was a child, alcohol has always held this mystery.”
Miles seems to be intrigued by things like alcohol, and perhaps even literature itself, which can both exalt and humiliate us. At one point in Dear American Airlines, he has Ford declare, “The French have an expression: ‘Without literature life is hell.’ Yeah, well. Life with it bears its own set of flames.”
“Certainly in Bennie’s case, poetry was, like alcohol and literature in general, this beautiful thing that lifted him up but that also corrupted him,” Miles says. “Bennie is a guy who’s sort of polluted by romanticisms, and then partially by the poetry that he took a little seriously. There’s this line I use. When Pablo Neruda writes, ‘You should run thru the streets with a green knife screaming,’ you’re not actually supposed to go get a green knife. The fact that they don’t sell green knives should be your first clue. Bennie is a guy who just took all that at face value and suffered for it.
I asked Miles if he likes Bennie. “I’m not sure there’s a simple answer,” he says. “In some sense you have to like your characters. I think you have to love your characters. Otherwise, it’s like a marriage. You can’t spend that much time alone in a room with them unless you feel something. Now the fact that I feel for Bennie, that I have this love for Bennie, does that mean I want to be next to him when he’s ranting at the airline counter? No, no. If he was sitting next to me at the airport, I’d be skittering away.”
I couldn’t resist asking Miles how he feels these days about air travel. “I hate it,” he says. This wasn’t always true. In his early days as a freelancer in the mid-1990s, when he was still living in Miss., having served an apprenticeship as a reporter with the Oxford Eagle, Miles was thrilled to be paid to fly. “I did a lot of travel writing,” Miles says. “I loved it. But flying the airlines has gotten brutal. It’s comic how bad it is. Now I want to do stories where I don’t have to leave home. I want hazard pay if I have to go to an airport.”
Miles has another novel on the way. “It’s completely different,” he says. “It’s a novel that tracks a large cast of people around by their waste, their trash. It’s sort of sketching out these characters by what they dispose of. I’m supposed to finish by May 2010.”
Jesse Chambers is Special Projects Editor for Birmingham Weekly and a frequent contributor to bhamweekly.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos of Jonathan Miles were taken by Leah Overstreet.