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Jonathan Miles: Author keeps the tales pouring

I wrote this for the Raleigh News & Observer in 2008 when Jonny published his first novel and am reprinting it as he publishes his second, “Want Not.” Read more about Jonny at www.toptenbooks.net.

Alcohol has been very, very good to Jonathan Miles.

The ecstasies and sorrows of drink are at the center of the 37-year-old’s first novel, “Dear American Airlines.” The darkly funny, achingly poignant portrait of a recovering alcoholic trapped at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport received a warm review from Richard Russo on the cover of last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.

As he worked on the novel, he began writing his Sunday column on cocktails, Shaken and Stirred, for the Times.

During the 1990s, he wooed his wife, Catherine now a wine importer from his favorite barstool at the City Grocery restaurant in Oxford, Miss., where she worked as a manager.

His writing life began in the early 1990s when he befriended novelist and legendary drinker Larry Brown. “I couldn’t ask for a better education than driving around Mississippi, drinking beer and talking about books and writing with Larry,” Miles said.

Booze even gave him his name. After World War II, his Polish grandfather was sitting with his brothers at a Cleveland pub trying to come up with a last name that sounded more American than Mozelski. They couldn’t agree on anything until someone noticed the name of the street the bar was on Miles Road.

“I’ve been around alcohol my whole life,” Miles said by phone from his upstate New York home. “I’m fascinated by all its facets, especially how it can enhance life so beautifully and destroy it so completely. That’s one reason I like to hang out in bars: You see people in extremis, at their happiest and saddest.”

Miles has done far more than warm barstools. The college dropout has enjoyed tremendous success since becoming a freelance writer in 1994. He has written for Esquire, GQ, Food & Wine, Sports Afield and Men’s Journal, where he writes a column on books. His articles have been included in the 1997, 1999 and 2000 editions of “The Best American Sports Writing” and the 2005 edition of “The Best American Crime Writing” series.

With that track record, it seems only natural that Houghton Mifflin would make his first novel its lead fiction title this summer, sending him on a 17-city tour.

Mesmerized in Mississippi

His life only seems as smooth as 12-year-old Scotch; it is more akin to the colorful drinks served in coconut shell glasses with paper umbrellas and spears of fruit. Miles was reared in Cleveland and Phoenix, where his father worked at various jobs and his mother was a homemaker who loved popular fiction.

“I was such an avid enough reader growing up that I’d go to Walden Books at the mall and shoplift Louis L’Amour books,” Miles remembers.

Also a fan of science fiction, he exhibited the freelancer’s crucial networking skills at a tender age when he wrote Isaac Asimov to see if they might become pen pals. “He balked at the long-term thing but gave me the only advice that matters: ‘Read as much as possible; write as much as possible.’ ”

Still, music was his first love. After graduating from high school in Phoenix, he returned to Cleveland, living with one of his two sisters, playing blues guitar at local clubs. On Sundays he’d sit in with Robert Jimmy Lockwood, stepson of blues legend Robert Johnson, who mesmerized Miles with stories of the Mississippi.

“I’d already discovered Faulkner, so I just had to see this place,” Miles said. Without ever having crossed the Mason-Dixon line, he applied to the University of Mississippi in 1989.

Miles’ tenure at Ole Miss was short-lived, but he fell in love with the town of Oxford. He lived in a $30 a month “Unibomber type” shack, worked at a series of “boy jobs bus boy, lawn boy, bag boy at the grocery store” and became part of the town’s close-knit community of writers and musicians

“I just met Larry Brown at a bar one night,” Miles recalled. Many drinks led to dinner, which became memorable when Brown spotted a banker who’d turned him down for a loan. The well-lubricated novelist mounted the man’s table “and did this slow twist,” Miles said, laughing. “He finished the whole song with his boots in the banker’s meal and I’m thinking, yeah, I’m going to hang out with this guy a lot.” Brown, who died in 2004, would became a “second father” to Miles, who dedicates his novel to him.

No autobiography here

As he worked on his fiction, Miles took his first writing job in 1994, as a reporter at the Oxford Eagle. All was well until Miles added what he considered an essential fact to an already edited obituary the deceased had been Faulkner’s bootlegger.

His angry boss told Miles the paper did not print people’s crimes in their obits. “I told him,” Miles recalled, ” ‘Bootlegging is not a crime, it’s a service.’ That was my last day at the paper.”

It was the start of his freelance career, writing for the locally published national magazine, The Oxford American, and pitching stories about Mississippi to New York-based publications. He was still living in his primitive shack when Will Blythe, a GQ editor and Chapel Hill native, gave him some invaluable advice: “If you’re thinking about doing this for a living, you might want to invest in a phone.”

As his journalism career took off, Miles continued to write fiction. He spent years writing more than 700 pages of a novel about “my great love for Mississippi” before realizing he could never finish it. When his agent asked him how it was going, he said “great.”

This was only a half-lie. Miles was expanding an old short story based on a personal experience a Memphis-Chicago-New York flight he’d taken that had been forced to land in Peoria. Miles and the other passengers were bused late at night to Chicago’s O’Hare where he slept under a restaurant table. He was furious, until he considered that he was only going to New York to meet friends for drinks. “I started looking around thinking someone is missing something important, something essential. What would that fury be like?”

That thought gave birth to his novel’s protagonist, Bennie Ford, a failed poet and translator of Polish novels who is trying to get to Los Angles to attend the wedding of his estranged daughter. In a drunken life where most everything’s gone wrong, he was hoping to do one thing right: walk his daughter down the aisle.

Through delays and cancellations, American Airlines has denied him that chance at redemption. The letter he writes while stuck at O’Hare demanding a refund becomes a 180-page examination of his hopes and failings.

“I’m happy to say there’s not a shred of autobiography in this novel,” Miles said. “Bennie is a nightmare of what I could have become, of what I’ve seen other people become.”

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