Wednesday, September 3, 2008

"Dear American Airlines"

Jonathan Miles is the cocktails columnist for the New York Times and a contributing editor and books columnist for Men’s Journal. His work has appeared, among other places, in GQ, the Oxford American, the New York Observer, and the New York Times Book Review.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Dear American Airlines, and reported the following:
Thank you for not asking for a Page 70 test. That page of my short little novel offers a rundown of the grim dining options available at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. “Butter Crust Chicagoland Pizza & McFuggets!” my hungry narrator laments. “Fu Manchu Wok Craaaaaaziness. Aromatherapy Smoothies.” That sort of thing. Or a Page 68 test, since that page describes the mood of airport-stranded smokers outside O’Hare (surly), and the view from the sidewalk smoking lounge (foul). But page 69, bingo. That’s a rich one, at least to me. That’s when my narrator—Benjamin R. Ford, b. 1953 in New Orleans, La., former poet & current translator of Polish lit, recovering alcoholic and piss-poor dad, and ticketholder on an American Airlines flight that’s supposed to deliver him to Los Angeles to participate in the wedding of his estranged daughter but...—realizes that O’Hare airport, where he is interminably delayed, might be a simulcram of purgatory, or vice versa. “Consider the view from my chair at H6,” he writes to the titular airline. “Sprawled ‘round me is a crowd of temporary refugees waiting, waiting, yawning, drumming fingers on kneecaps, asking cellphones what they did to deserve this, rereading The Da Vinci Code to keep from having to stare at the carpet.” Here’s a man with one measly ambition left—a mostly-symbolic act of atonement in L.A.—and he’s been thwarted by American Airlines, left to simmer in the purgatorial stew of O’Hare. And oooh he’s pissed. Flip back to Page 66 for a section that begins, “Dear American Airlines, you miserable fucks...” Et cetera et wowee cetera. But just three pages later, after some calming drags on a Lucky Strike and a dose of dour reality, he’s onto something, if only faintly: that his exile here, at O’Hare, might be karmically warranted, that Purgatory—even the modern, secular version of it, with its Hudson News outlets and TSA screeners and buzzy-blue flourescent lighting—might be a necessary terrace between heaven and hell, or between, as Bennie says earlier, “the dregs of one life and the debris of another.” On Page 69, Bennie is coming to grips with the metaphorical dimensions of his predicament. Which for a poet, even an ex-poet, is known as the eureka moment. And with that knowledge, that glimpse of the philosophical underpinning of his situation, Bennie begins to steer himself from blind rage toward acceptance, and maybe, eh, you never know, toward something like redemption. We’re “a semi-punished lot, all of us,” he says of his fellow strandees, in O’Hare as in life. “Imprisoned within a pause, desperate to ascend.”
Read an excerpt from the novel and learn more about the author and his work at the Dear American Airlines website.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue