Most people know what it feels like to be stuck in limbo somewhere between departure and destination. Even if your journey was perfectly planned, there are so many things that can easily go awry and impede your progress. In Dear American Airlines, that agonizing stasis is symptomatic of much more than an airline’s incompetence or a missed connection. It characterizes the 53 years that Benjamin R. Ford has been living and drawing breath.
While en route from New York to Los Angeles, Bennie’s flight is abruptly canceled. Even though the sky is bright and the clouds look picturesque, rather than ominous, American Airlines claims foul weather has interfered with the scheduled flight. As a consequence, Bennie finds himself trapped in Chicago’s O’Hare airport with no way out. But he does have a pen, some paper, and the desire to complain to American Airlines.
The entirety of Jonathan Miles’s poignant and humorous novel is written in the form of a letter of complaint. At first, Bennie’s explicit goal is to write and get his ticket refunded. As the letter progresses, however, it becomes quite clear that a check from American Airlines will not resolve Bennie’s existential crisis.
While the other passengers on the canceled flight are displaced and inconvenienced, Bennie is distraught. Not making it to LA is unthinkable, and he can barely bring himself to contemplate what the interrupted journey might cost him. Bennie is obsessed with escaping O’Hare because of what the Golden Coast represents: a chance to redeem himself and keep a promise he made many years ago to his estranged daughter, Stella. When Stella unexpectedly invited him to attend her commitment ceremony in LA, Bennie recognized it as a unique opportunity to reconnect with his only child and prove he isn’t the loser everyone seems to see when they look into his eyes.
Bennie has more than a passing acquaintance with failure. In the past, he has failed as a poet, a husband, and father. Where most people would see a canceled flight as a nuisance, Bennie realizes that his entire life has put him in variations of this scenario: frozen just out of reach of everything he wants, forced to contemplate what he’s missing, and constantly fighting the overwhelming desire to immerse himself in a boozy cocoon.
Dear American Airlines is humorous, absurd, and melancholy. Bennie’s initial complaint gives him an opportunity to vent his bitterness in highly amusing ways. As the subject matter of his letter becomes darker and more confessional, however, the tone also shifts towards tragicomic. Bennie is a caustic protagonist, but he is also profoundly human, and his struggle to progress, to prove himself, and to do one thing right resonates with the essential components of the human condition