A letter of complaint morphed into a tragicomic fictional autobiography — this is a new genre on me. But if the success of Jonathan Miles’ Dear American Airlines is any indication, there may well be imitators. The hero (and I use the term loosely) is Bennie Ford, a translator of obscure Polish novels, and a poet whose best work is long behind him. Twice divorced (his first marriage was so short-lived that he used one bath towel for its entire duration), he lives with his stroke disabled mother in a cramped New York apartment.
The stroke may have been the best thing that could have happened to my mother. No doubt this sounds beastly, especially considering that she cannot move the right side of her body and must communicate by scrawling pithy comments on one of the multicolored Post-it pads she keeps piled on her lap, but my mother used to be crazy and now she is not. I don’t mean crazy like your old Aunt Edna who’s still dancing the tango at eighty and makes uncomfortably blue comments at the Thanksgiving dinner table. I mean manic-depressive schizophrenic crazy, the hard stuff. During a stroke, parts of the brain are starved of oxygen and die, and in the case of my mother, apparently the crazy parts got starved. The stroke cleaved her in two but, hooray and I mean it, left the good half functioning. This isn’t to suggest that things are hunky-dory at home but rather to say that things were once worse. To be honest things were once terrible but then that’s another story and you’re probably skimming already.
Bennie’s doesn’t limit his rueful tone to others. He’s just as hard on himself, and he has plenty of reasons: his alcoholism, the destruction of his marriage, the fading of his career as a poet, his complete estrangement from his daughter (he doesn’t learn that she’s gay till he receives the invitation to her commitment ceremony). The invitation seems like his last chance into his daughter’s life, and maybe his only opportunity to redeem himself in general. As flight delays and complications pile up, Bennie clings to the opportunity with more desperation.
Miles somehow makes Bennie, with all his faults, a sympathetic character. He walks the thin line between self-pity and self-disgust, but the humor always manages to save the book from being an off-putting wallow in either one. The story alternates with passages from the Polish novel that Bennie is translating. This story, while interesting in a few parallels to Bennie’s life, often seemed to break the novel’s momentum a bit for me, and I would have been happier with fewer or shorter excerpts. But overall, I found it a funny and affecting read.
author photo: Stan Godlewski for USA TODAY