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Another fine mess

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Dear American Airlines - Jonathan  Miles I'm waffling between 3 and 4 stars, but lean higher for two reasons. 1) I swallowed the book in four smooth, gut-punching shots, finding it occasionally astringent but relishing its fire, reveling in the boozy combination of nasty jokes and maudlin recollection. It's sentimental and yet rigorously derisive, and I enjoyed the narrator Bennie's company on both counts. 2) This ain't some cheap rotgut, as the prose quite often bubbled and popped and woozily tilted against convention, e.g.:

--describing his (and others') predicament, stranded at O'Hare by an inexplicable flurry of flight cancellations, as akin to Purgatory, Bennie surveys the "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. . . . A semi-punished lot, all of us: imprisoned within a pause, desperate to ascend;"

--one of Bennie's failed poems is "like an unfocused photograph;"

--"A fat man with the pinched red face of an infant and such a stink to his breath that you could smell his laughter across a crowded room."

And so on. Further, you could smell my laughter, too, at a number of very finely-pitched lines and scenarios, including one wonderful riff on the problems of breaking up with a lover named Stella that was simultaneously funny and a sly commentary on the unfortunate impact of literature on Bennie's life.

A few reviewers have been put off by the book's "failure" to hew more closely to its pitch (a complaint letter to American Airlines drafted in O'Hare), but while the central structural conceit does provide constant running gags, what is key is not the rant nor the situation but the more complicated comedy of finding a sense of one's own life through words which reach out to connect. Bennie is a (once-mildy-successful cum failed-human-being poet), a translator of Polish works (and one novel, translation in process, recurs throughout as a contrapuntal aria to B's own memories and complaints), a very bad father, a very good alcoholic (in abeyance), a very beleaguered son. I was impressed by how many balls Miles threw into the air, and how his juggling never seemed too strenuous or too arch--the play of narratives, the complicated flashback structure, the bustling ramble of a first-person rant all complemented one another, mostly. If I have any complaint, it's that I'd have appreciated a longer novel, more ambitiously teasing out the intersections of a Polish post-war novel and this poet's failed life, a more explicit attention to the central macguffin (the rant to American). Where others see problems and want the clutter cleared away, I'd have gone for extended play. But there's an understated precision to many of Miles' seemingly throwaway riffs and complications; quoting John Ciardi about the perils of the translator, who "tries for no more than the best possible failure," Bennie briefly notes how that would make a good epitaph, and it's quite lovely how often Miles can pull such rabbits out of threadworn or ridiculous hats.

Miles also nails the pleasures and pitfalls of alcohol abuse, and I'll let his Bennie close the review, with another of his great riffs:

"The worst part of sobriety is the silence. The lonesome, pressurized silence. Like the way sound falls away when you're choking. Even when I drank alone, the vodka provided me with a kind of soundtrack--a rhythm, channeled voices, a brain crowded with noise and streaming color, the rackety blurred clutter of my decrepitude. At the meetings everyone talks about how much more vivid life is without the booze, but I think, though I never say, that vivid is the wrong word. Life is rather more clear. I'm supposed to be thankful for that clarity, I know, for being freed from that dissonant inner music, from all those flatulent trumpets in my brain, and for finally being able to see life as it is, me as I am.... I'm supposed to be thankful, I know, for finally being shucked down to the core of me. But forgive me, I can't help it: Thanks but no thanks."

A good book.