Author to read début novel about ‘selfish America’


New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Miles creates an allegory for a selfish America in his début novel, Dear American Airlines.

Google “Jonathan Miles” and you’ll find “Fingerjig Typing Game” at the top of the search: Click to “prove your touch-typing prowess.”

But the Jonathan Miles passing through Iowa City today only shares the name with the founder of the addicting fingerjigging game designed to test typing efficiency.

In fact, the writer does not use the home row. He’s not a “QWERTY” typer and is a self-proclaimed “hunt-and-pecker.” Despite his typographical shortcomings, he actively writes for Men’s Journal and the New York Times, and he will read from his new book, Dear American Airlines — a book that he “pecked” in its entirety — at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

The novel is a 192-page letter of complaint, beginning with “My name is Benjamin R. Ford and I am writing to request a refund in the amount of $392.68.” In the book, Benjamin (Bennie for short), finds himself stranded in O’Hare after his flight has been canceled because of adverse weather conditions.

“This book is 99 percent nonautobiographical, but the 1 percent that is true is the situation Bennie finds himself in,”Miles said.

The story was conceived when the author’s O’Hare flight cancellation left him lounging under a table at the Wolfgang Puck restaurant in the terminal. Miles, who was only on a pleasure trip when he faced his quest quandary, began to wonder about the plight of his stranded peers.

“What if I was missing some life or death event?” he said. “That’s when I started writing this complaint letter in my head. That’s, I guess, where Bennie came from.”

Throughout the novel, Benjamin R. Ford becomes a critical allegory of the American mindset — a self-righteous, self-serving utterly shallow man with one very short fuse.

“Bennie is not Everyman, but his situation is an Everyman situation,” Miles said. “I chose flat names that could expand throughout the story.”

The book is written solely from Bennie’s character inside the airport, containing a mixture of woeful and uplifting flashbacks. This may be because of Miles’ own lack of geographic settling (the result of traveling as a young musician).

“I found myself in Ohio getting tired of playing music and moved to Oxford [Miss.],” Miles said.

In the Magnolia State, he met Larry Brown, a firefighter turned American novelist. Miles said Brown taught the budding writer everything he now knows about putting a pen to paper.

“I hate to say [Brown] was my mentor — that sounds so pompous — but that’s what he was,” Miles said. “We’d just drink beer in his truck and talk about writers. He was never my editor, just my role model.”

But when it comes to his own characters when sitting down to write, Miles knows what’s expected from his hands.

“It took me a year and a half to write Dear American Airlines,” he said. “I think you have to be in love with your characters, but Bennie is not a character you love. You just need to sit in a room, glue your butt to the chair, and type.”

Or, in his case, peck.


My name is Benjamin R. Ford and I am writing to request a refund in the amount of $392.68. But then, no, scratch that: Request is too mincy & polite, I think, too officious & Britishy, a word that walks along the page with the ramrod straightness of someone trying to balance a walnut on his upper ass cheeks. Yet what am I saying? Words don’t have ass cheeks! Dear American Airlines, I am rather demanding a refund in the amount of $392.68. Demanding demanding demanding […] Imagine, for illustrative purposes, that there’s a table between us. Hear that sharp sound? That’s me slapping the table. Me, Mr. Payable to Benjamin R. Ford, whapping the damn legs off it! Ideally you’re also imagining concrete walls and a naked light bulb dangling above us: Now picture me bursting to my feet and kicking the chair behind me, with my finger in your face and my eyes all red and squinty and frothy bittles of spittle freckling the edges of my mouth as I bellow, roar, yowl, as I blooooow like the almighty mother of all blowholes: Give me my goddamn money back! See? Little twee request doesn’t quite capture it, does it? Nossir. This is a demand. This is fucking serious.

Naturally I’m aware that ten zillion cranks per annum make such demands upon you. I suppose you little piglets are accustomed to being huffed upon and puffed upon. Even now, from my maldesigned seat in this maldesigned airport, I spy a middle-aged woman waving her arms at the ticket counter like a sprinklerhead gone awry. Perhaps she is serious, too. Maybe, like me, even fucking serious. Yet the briefcase by the woman’s feet and her pleated Talbots suit lead me to conclude that she’s probably missing some terribly important meeting in Atlanta where she’s slated to decide something along the lines of which carbonated beverage ten zillion galoots aged 18–34 will drink during a specified half-hour of television viewing in four to six midwestern markets and I’m sure the ticket agent is being sweetly sympathetic to the soda lady’s problem but screw her anyway. So a half-zillion galoots drink Pepsi rather than Coke, so what? My entire being, on the other hand, is now dust on the carpet, ripe and ready to be vacuumed up by some immigrant in a jumpsuit.

Please calm down sir, I can hear you saying. Might we recommend a healthy snack, perhaps some sudoku? Yes, sudoku: apparently the analgesic du jour of the traveling class. That little game is what appears to be getting my fellow citizens through these hours of strandedness, hours that seem to be coagulating, wound-like, rather than passing. They say a watched pot never boils but baby it’s tough not to watch when you’re neck-deep in the pot. Just how many hours so far, I can’t say — not with any precision anyway. Why are there so few clocks in airports? You can’t turn your head more than ten degrees in a train station without hitting another clock on the wall, the ceiling, the floor, etc. You’d think that the smart-asses who design airports, taking a hint from their forebears, would think to hang a clock or two on the walls instead of leaving the time-telling to the digital footnotes at the bottom of the scattered schedule screens. I take an oversized amount of pride in the fact that I’ve never worn a wristwatch since my thirteenth birthday when my father gave me a Timex and I smashed it with a nine-iron to see how much licking would stop its ticking (not much, as it turned out). But then airports weren’t designed for people like me, a fact becoming more and more obvious as I divide my present between smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk outside and drumming my fingers on the armrests of the chairs inside. But even more odious than the clocklessness, I might add, is replacing the beep-beep-beep of those passenger carts with digitized birdsong imitations. Birdsongs! I shouldn’t have to tell you that being run down by a twelve-foot sparrow is little improvement over being run down by a militarized golf cart. But then that’s a matter for the smart-asses, not you, so mea culpa. We must be choosy with our battles, or so I’ve been told.

It occurs to me that none of this will do me a bit of good unless I state my particulars, to wit: My ticket — purchased for $392.68 as I’ve relevantly aforementioned and will continue to mention, as frequently as a tapdancer’s clicks — is for roundtrip passage from New York–LaGuardia to Los Angeles’s LAX (with a forty-five-minute layover at Chicago O’Hare; were there a clock nearby, I’d divulge the truer length of my layover, but it’s safe to say it’s edging toward eight hours, with no end in sight). 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.

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