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Ryan Bingham's job as a Career Transition Counselor--he fires people--has kept him airborne for years. Although he has come to despise his line of work, he has come to love the culture of what he calls "Airworld," finding contentment within pressurized cabins, anonymous hotel rooms, and a wardrobe of wrinkle-free slacks. With a letter of resignation sitting on his boss's desk, and the hope of a job with a mysterious consulting firm, Ryan Bingham is agonizingly close to his ultimate goal, his Holy Grail: one million frequent flier miles. But before he achieves this long-desired freedom, conditions begin to deteriorate. With perception, wit, and wisdom, Up in the Air combines brilliant social observation with an acute sense of the psychic costs of our rootless existence, and confirms Walter Kirn as one of the most savvy chroniclers of American life. From the Trade Paperback edition.
WALTER KIRN is a contributing editor to Time and GQ and a regular reviewer for the New York Times Book Review. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, GQ, Vogue, New York, and Esquire. He is the author of four previous works of fiction: My Hard Bargain: Stories, She Needed Me, Thumbsucker, and Up in the Air. He lives in Livingston, Montana.
To know me you have to fly with me. 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. The jaunty male flight attendant brings our drinks: a two percent milk with one ice cube for me, a Wild Turkey for you. It's wet outside, the runways streaked and dark. Late afternoon. The first-class cabin fills with other businessmen who switch on their laptops and call up lengthy spreadsheets or use the last few moments before takeoff to punch in cell-phone calls to wives and clients. Their voices are bright but shallow, no diaphragms, their sentences kept short to save on tolls, and when they hang up they face the windows, sigh, and reset their watches from Central time to Mountain. For some of them this means a longer day, for others it means eating supper before they're hungry. One fellow lowers his plastic window shade and wedges his head between two skimpy pillows, while another unlatches his briefcase, looks inside, then shuts his eyes and rubs his jaw, exhausted.
Your own work is done, though, temporarily. All week you've been out hustling, courting hot prospects in franchised seafood bars and steering a rented Intrepid along strange streets that didn't match the markings in your atlas. You gave it your all, and for once your all was good enough to placate a boss who fears for his own job. You've stashed your tie in your briefcase, freed your collar, and slackened your belt a notch or two. To breathe. Just breathing can be such a luxury sometimes.
"Is that the one about the tax-fraud murders? I'm hearing his plots aren't what they used to be." You stall before answering, trying to discourage me. To you, I'm a type. A motormouth. A pest. You're still getting over that last guy, LA to Portland, whose grandson was just admitted to Stanford Law. A brilliant kid, and a fine young athlete, too, he started his own business as a teen computerizing local diaper services—though what probably clinched his acceptance was his charity work; the kid has a soft spot for homeless immigrants, which pretty much describes all of us out west, though some are worse off than others. We're the lucky ones.
"I'm on page eleven," you say. "The plot's still forming."
"It hit number four on the Times list."
"Don't read that paper."
"You live in Denver? Going home?"
"Tell me about it. Nothing but delays."
"Foul weather at one of the hubs."
"Their classic line."
"I guess they don't take us for much these days."
"Won't touch that. Interesting news about the Broncos yesterday."
"Pro football's a farce."
"I can't say I disagree."
"Millionaires and felons—these athletes sicken me. I do enjoy hockey, though. Hockey I don't hate."
"That's the Canadian influence," I say. "It ameliorates the materialism."
"I talk big when I'm tired. Professor gasbag. Sorry. I like hockey, too."
The atom was split by persistence; you relax. We go on chatting, impersonally at first, but then, once we've realized all we have in common—our moderate politics, our taste in rental cars, our feeling that the American service industry had better shape up soon or face a crisis—a warmth wells up, a cozy solidarity. You recommend a hotel in Tulsa; I tip you off to a rib joint in Fort Worth. The plane heads into a cloud, it bucks and shudders. Nothing like turbulence to cement a bond. Soon, you're telling me about your family. Your daughter, the high school gymnast. Your lovely wife. She's gone back to work and you're not so sure you like this, though her job is only p
Excerpted from Up in the Air by Walter Kirn All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.