"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Down and Dirty 'Up in the Air'

Up in the Air (Movie Tie-in Edition)Up in the Air by Walter Kirn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are looking for the clean, life-affirming and charming adaptation you saw on screen with George Clooney, you may be upset by this book. The movie makers, as they tend to, did a lot of dusting, streamlining, and reinventing. The good news is that Up in the Air is a fantastic novel. This is a turbulent cross country flight worth taking.

Let me get my one gripe out of the way. I could have used a little more "He said/She said" from author Walter Kirn. I don't mean pernicious gossip. He provides just the right amount of that. I mean beginning or ending dialogue with tags like "He said," or "She said". On several occasions of back and forth dialogue I lost track of who was speaking. Perhaps Kirn wanted me to lose track. Perhaps my attention span is lacking in the pathetic way it is for so many who live their lives clinging to smart devices and mass media. Regardless, such tags help me stay on track.

Now on to the praise. Up in the Air includes rich amounts of interpersonal and introspective detail. This book is about a guy on the go via commercial airliners, striving to stay ahead of Time and keep pace with the rat race of business. Kirn captures the sensory onslaught of sights, sounds, smells and tastes as the protagonist, Ryan Bingham, plies his trade in career transition counseling, aka firing people for a living. And the author imbues it all with the significance and meaning great novels provide.

Thematically, Kirn is on his game. For example, there is a running theme of the perceived value of service, which in our wonderful and edifying free market so often comes as pandering and patronizing...when it's not outright deception. Is love, assuming it is true, just a byproduct of crisis?

To make the story less dreary than it could have been, Kirn infuses spicy doses of wry humor. The humor hits so well in part because Ryan is a fascinating cocktail of astuteness and awkwardness. This is a great, intensely personal, head to toe portrait of a modern man.

The novel comes to a head in Las Vegas, where Ryan has a ferocious inner confrontation while living it up and down with his attractive but suspicious liaison Alex. I've accrued some memories in Vegas, done a bit of the decadence as well as the family-friendly stuff, had a romantic walk by the Bellagio fountains, and even once drove the Strip with about nine people packed in my sedan. But I have never had a tumultuous and troubling night to the self-medicated degree Ryan does. It's an intense narrative sequence and at times uncomfortable to witness. We are often cruel to each other. But oh how cruel we can be to ourselves given there is no chance of escape.

The climax involving Ryan's quest to collect one million frequent-flyer miles is wonderfully bittersweet and anticlimactic in the way it should be. After all, Ryan is learning. Ryan is changing. Or is he? You'll have to read to find out, and even then...well, just read it. Up in the Air is great contemporary fiction.

"Nothing like turbulence to cement a bond," he said.

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