Walter Kirn’s “Up in the Air”

Up in the Air - Walter Kirn

Walter Kirn begins his clever, caustic novel Up in the Air with a little monologue:

“To know me you have to fly with me.” That’s Ryan Bingham, protagonist and veteran air traveler. “Sit down. I’m the aisle, you’re the window — trapped. You crack your paperback, last spring’s big legal thriller, convinced that what you want is solitude, though I know otherwise: you need to talk.”

Bingham is 35, a career-transition counselor for some vague Denver management company (his job is to travel around and fire people, and make them feel OK about it).

The plot, such it were, centers around Ryan’s monumentally trivial quest to reach the Holy Grail of one million frequent-flier miles. His obstacles: his disintegrating career, his ragged family (especially his sister’s impending marriage), the nagging paranoia that someone might be angling for his miles.

At times I found the plot a little confusing, and some of the dialogue — while awfully snappy — a tad bit too terse.

But the plot isn’t nearly as much fun as Kirn’s pitch-perfect anthropology:

I call it Airworld; the scene, the place, the style. My hometown papers are USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. The big-screen Panasonics in the club rooms broadcast all the news I need, with an emphasis on the markets and the weather. My literature — yours, too, I see — is the best seller or the near-best seller, heavy on themes of espionage, high finance and the goodness of common people in small towns. In Airworld, I’ve found, the passions and enthusiasms of the outlying society are concentrated and whisked to a stiff froth. When a new celebrity is minted in the movie theaters or ballparks, this is where the story breaks — on the vast magazine racks that form a sort of trading floor for public reputations and pretty faces. I find it possible here, as nowhere else, to think of myself as part of the collective that prices the long bond and governs necktie widths. Airworld is a nation within a nation, with its own language, architecture, mood and even its own currency — the token economy of airline bonus miles that I’ve come to value more than dollars. Inflation doesn’t degrade them. They’re not taxed. They’re private property in its purest form.

Despite his status as a damaged bit of luggage (divorced, accused of running from his family’s problems, lying to his mom about his location), Ryan is somehow engaging, despite being marinated in cynicism.

Besides, the real fun is in Airworld, where airport chapels are ”restful and perfect for catching up on paperwork,” and where interesting people share planes with him.

When General Norman Schwarzkopf goes to the lavatory, we get this: ”I feel a shift as all of us stop thinking about ourselves and wonder why that closed door is staying so closed. A hand-washer? Normal travelers’ diarrhea? It’s painful to picture the Big Guy so confined.”

I wanted to read this when it came out in mid-2001 … then had a thought that 9/11 must have been an odd thing to happen to this recently released book.

Then I forgot about the book for years and years, until I stumbled across Lost in the Meritocracy, a remarkable short memoir he published in the Atlantic (which is now a book).

That steered me back to Up in the Air. Good thing, too. As a satire of an odd little segment of Americana (airports and business travel), this book hits a bulls-eye.