There are certain books that begin with a great premise and a great main character but which are simply unable to deliver on the promise of a well-told story. This is one of those books. This 303-page tale of a modern airline traveler loses its interest, its energy and its wings at about the 200-page mark. From then on, the engines are stalled and the story glides awkwardly to a crash landing on a foam-filled runway.
Up in the Air is the story of Ryan Bingham, a so-called Career Transition Counselor, who is hired to help downsizing companies get rid of employees without having them go postal. Bingham must be part psychologist, part upward mobility trainer and – to a large part – a fraudulent New Age guru who’s supposed to convince the terminated workers that its all for the best. Of course, Bingham (who views himself as a type of glorified and special purpose accountant) never has to stick around to view the actual damage – the failed marriages, lost homes and suicides. He convinces himself that he does more good than harm as he flies every day or two on Great West Airlines circa 2001.
As we meet the not-very-likeable and self-absorbed Bingham, he’s submitted his resignation because he is about to accomplish the main goal of his life. His primary objective is to be the tenth person in the domestic carrier’s history who has flown 1,000,000 miles without leaving the U.S. Bingham travels so much that he has no home or apartment, he lives in the thin atmosphere land he calls “Airworld.”
There’s a lot of inside baseball talk that frequent flyers and frequent lodging chain sleepers will find entertaining… For example, there’s much debate about the merits of Hilton-owned Hampton Inns versus Marriott Courtyards. Which one is the best base for corporate warriors, and why is it that a traveler feels almost invisible at the larger Marriott and Hilton properties? (And why is it that frequent travelers come to need Sound Soothers to sleep?) Bingham also has this marvelous machine called the Hand Star, the apparent precursor of today’s BlackBerry smartphone.
The first problem with Air is the realization that Bingham is the only character that is remotely believable or plausible, and even this is a stretch. The next problem is that the once-serious story turns into a hybrid science fiction-dark satire two-thirds of the way through its telling. A lot of paranoia emerges among Bingham and those he encounters, which may mean that he’s gone insane… Worse, it may signal that this tale was a put-on from page one.
I prefer to think that author Walter Kirn came up with a great start but had no finish. (Nevertheless, he’s received a very large check from George Clooney’s people who are turning this into the star’s next film.) Not recommended; simply not worth the time or effort required to get through it. There’s just no payoff on arrival for frequent readers.