on June 3, 2008
Benjamin Ford, the protagonist of this novel, is flying from New York to Los Angeles to attend his daughter Stella's wedding. But in transit, at the O'Hare airport, his connecting flight is suddenly cancelled, stranding him. He begins to worry that he will be late for the wedding. While waiting for more than eight hours at the air port - and smoking seventeen cigarettes - for the next flight, he starts writing a letter of complaint to the American Airlines, demanding a refund of $392.68, the price of the round trip airfare. This letter of complaint grows in length, and matures into a funny, witty, mesmerizing novel.
Benjamin, middle-aged, is a poet and writer; he translates Polish novels into English. While writing the letter of complaint, he ponders about his failed marriages, his misdirected and ruined life, the time he wasted drinking heavily, his estranged daughter, his bed-ridden mother and the cramped apartment he shares with her. He also dwells on Walenty Mozelewski, the protagonist of the novel "The Free State of Trieste," which he has been translating from Polish. Walenty has lost a leg to mortar shell in a war, and so he is physically crippled. Benjamin is crippled too; he is emotionally crippled, a victim mostly of self-inflicted wounds.
When someone you know begins to whine, generally you would try to get away from the whiner at the very first chance you get. But the author's whining here, in the form of a very long letter of complaint, I read as if I were glued to my seat, forgetting even to reach for my cup of coffee in the microwave. This novel is funny, witty, acerbic, and at times vitriolic, mesmerizing, hilarious, hypnotic, dazzling, sad, and in turn heart-breaking and very touching, all at once! How did Jonathan Miles accomplish this feat? Through the flight of his imagination and magic of his pen, I suppose.
Written in lively, abrasive, masculine, snappy, and yet strangely affecting prose, this book will delight, provoke, entertain and sadden the reader:
"In that eightish-hour period I've smoked seventeen cigarettes which wouldn't be notable save for the fact that the dandy Hudson News outlets here don't stock my brand so I'll soon be forced to switch to another, and while that shouldn't upset me it does. In fact, it enrages me. Here's my life in dangly tatters and I can't even enjoy this merest of my pleasures. Several hours ago a kid in a Cubs windbreaker bummed one of mine and I swear if I spy him again I'll smash him like a Timex. Cough it up, you turd. But then all this talk of smoking is giving me the familiar itch, so if you'll excuse me for a moment I'm off to the sidewalk, as required by law, to scratch it."
It is very rare to come across a first novel as charming and impressive as this. Jonathan Miles is an astonishing writer.