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Up in the Air

Up in the Air

by Walter Kirn


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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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385722377
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/24/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 216,393
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Walter Kirn is the fiction editor for GQ magazine, and the author of three previous novels. He lives near Livingston, Montana.

Read an Excerpt


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?"

"I'm trying."

"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."

"In English?"

"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 part time and may not last. Another thing you dislike is traveling. The pissy ticket agents. The luggage mix-ups. The soft hotel mattresses that twist your spine. You long for a windfall that will let you quit and pursue your great hobby: restoring vintage speedboats. The water—that's where you're happiest. The lake.
Now it's my turn. I make a full report. Single, but on the lookout—you never know, the woman in 3B might be my soul mate. Had a wife once, the prospect of a family, but I knew her mostly through phone calls across time zones. Grew up in Minnesota, in the country; father owned a fleet of propane trucks and served as a Democrat in two state legislatures, pressing a doomed agricultural agenda while letting his business slip. Parents split while I was in college, an eastern hippie school—picture a day care run by Ph.D.'s—and when I got home there was nothing to come back to, just lawyers and auctioneers and accusations, some of them true but few of them important. My first job was in computers. I sold memory, the perfect product, since no one has enough of it and everyone fears some competitor has more. Now I work as a management consultant, minoring in EET (Executive Effectiveness Training) and majoring—overwhelmingly, unfortunately—in CTC (Career Transition Counseling), which is a fancy term for coaching people to understand job loss as an opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. It's a job I fell into because I wasn't strong, and grew to tolerate because I had to, then suddenly couldn't stand another hour of. My letter of resignation is on the desk of a man who will soon return from a long fishing trip. What I'll do after he reads it, I don't know. I'm intrigued by a firm called MythTech; they've put out feelers. I have other logs in the fire, but no flames yet. Until my superior flies back from Belize, I work out of Denver for ISM, Integrated Strategic Management. You've heard of Andersen? Deloitte & Touche? We're something like them, though more diversified. "The Business of Business," we say. Impressed me too, once.
As the hour passes and the meal comes (you try the Florentine chicken, I take the steak, and neither of us goes near the whipped dessert), the intimacy we develop is almost frightening. I'd like to feel it came naturally, mutually, and not because I pushed. I push sometimes. We exchange cards and slot them in our wallets, then order another round and go on talking, arriving at last at the topic I know best, the subject I could go on about all night.

You want to know who you're sitting with? I'll tell you.

lanes and airports are where I feel at home. Everything fellows like you dislike about them—the dry, recycled air alive with viruses; the salty food that seems drizzled with warm mineral oil; the aura-sapping artificial lighting—has grown dear to me over the years, familiar, sweet. I love the Compass Club lounges in the terminals, especially the flagship Denver club, with its digital juice dispenser and deep suede sofas and floor-to-ceiling views of taxiing aircraft. I love the restaurants and snack nooks near the gates, stacked to their heat lamps with whole wheat mini-pizzas and gourmet caramel rolls. I even enjoy the suite hotels built within sight of the runways on the ring roads, which are sometimes as close as I get to the cities that my job requires me to visit. I favor rooms with kitchenettes and conference tables, and once I cooked a Christmas feast in one, serving glazed ham and sweet potato pie to a dozen janitors and maids. They ate with me in rotation, on their breaks, one or two at a time, so I really got to know them, even though most spoke no English. I have a gift that way. If you and I hadn't hit it off like this, if the only words we'd passed were "That's my seat" or "Done with that Business Week?" or just "Excuse me," I'd still regard us as close acquaintances and hope that if we met again up here we wouldn't be starting from zero, as just two suits. Twice last October I sat in the same row, on different routes, as 1989's Miss USA, the one who remade herself as a Washington hostess and supposedly works nonstop for voting rights. In person she's tiny, barely over five feet. I put her carry-on in the overhead.

But you know some of this already. You fly, too. It just hasn't hooked you; you just don't study it.

Hey, you're probably the normal one.

Fast friends aren't my only friends, but they're my best friends. Because they know the life—so much better than my own family does. We're a telephone family, strung out along the wires, sharing our news in loops and daisy chains. We don't meet face-to-face much, and when we do there's a dematerialized feeling, as though only half of our molecules are present. Sad? Not really. We're a busy bunch. And I'm not lonely. If I had to pick between knowing just a little about a lot of folks and knowing everything about a few, I'd opt for the long, wide-angle shot, I think.

I'm peaceful. I'm in my element up here. Flying isn't an inconvenience for me, as it is for my colleagues at ISM, who hit the road to prove their loyalty to a company that's hungry for such proof and, I'm told, rewards it now and then. But I've never aspired to an office at world headquarters, close to hearth and home and skybox, with a desk overlooking the Front Range of the Rockies and access to the ninth-floor fitness center. I suppose I'm a sort of mutation, a new species, and though I keep an apartment for storage purposes—actually, I left the place two weeks ago and transferred the few things I own into a locker I've yet to pay the rent on, and may not—I live somewhere else, in the margins of my itineraries.

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 bestseller or the near-bestseller, 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.

It was during a layover in the Dallas Compass Club, my back sinking into a downy sofa cushion and coarse margarita salt drying on my lips, that I first told a friend about TMS, my Total Mileage System.

"It's simple," I said, as my hand crept up her leg (the woman was older than me and newly single; an LA ad exec who claimed her team had hatched the concept behind affinity credit cards). "I don't spend a nickel, if I can help it, unless it somehow profits my account. I'm not just talking hotels and cars and long-distance carriers and Internet services, but mail-order steak firms and record clubs and teleflorists. I shop them according to the miles they pay, and I pit them against each other for the best deal. Even my broker gives miles as dividends."

"So what's your total?"

I smiled, but didn't speak. I'm an open book in most ways, and I feel I deserve a few small secrets.

"What are you saving up for? Big vacation?"

"I'm not a vacation person. I'm just saving. I'd like to give a chunk to charity—to one of those groups that flies sick kids to hospitals."

"I didn't know you could do that. Sweet," she said. She kissed me, lightly, quickly, but with feeling—a flick of her tongue tip that promised more to come should we meet again, which hasn't happened yet. If it does, I may have to duck her, I'm afraid. She was too old for me even then, three years ago, and ad execs tend to age faster than the rest of us, once they're on their way.
I don't recall why I told that story. Not flattering. But I wasn't in great shape back then. I'd just come off a seven-week vacation that ISM insisted I take for health reasons. I spent the time off taking classes at the U, hoping to enrich an inner life stretched thin by years of pep-talking the jobless. My bosses matched my tuition for the courses; a creative writing seminar that clawed apart a short nostalgic sketch about delivering propane with my father in a sixty-mile-per-hour blizzard, and a class called "Country-Western Music as Literature." The music professor, a transplanted New Yorker in a black Stetson with a snakeskin band and a bolo tie clipped with a scorpion in amber, believed that great country lyrics share a theme: the migration from the village to the city, the disillusionment with urban wickedness, and the mournful desire to go home. The idea held up through dozens of examples and stayed with me when I returned to work, worsening the low mood and mental fuzziness that ISM had ordered me to correct. I saw my travels as a twangy ballad full of rhyming place names and neon streetscapes and vanishing taillights and hazy women's faces. All those corny old verses, but new ones, too. The DIA control tower in fog. The drone of vacuum cleaners in a hallway, telling guests that they've slept past checkout time. The goose-pimply arms of a female senior manager hugging a stuffed bear I've handed her as we wait together for two security guards—it's overkill; the one watches the other—to finish loading file cubes and desk drawers and the CPU from her computer onto a flat gray cart whose squeaky casters scream all the way to an elevator bank where a third guard holds down the "open" button.

I pulled out of it—barely. I cut that song off cold. It took a toll, though. Because I seldom see doctors in their offices, but only in transit, accidentally, my sense of my afflictions is vague, haphazard. High blood pressure? No doubt. Cholesterol? I'm sure it's in the pink zone, if not the red. Once, between Denver and Oklahoma City, I nodded off next to a pulmonary specialist who told me when I woke that I had apnea—a tendency to stop breathing while unconscious. The doctor recommended a machine that pushes air through the nostrils while one sleeps to raise the oxygen level in one's blood. I didn't follow up. My circulation is ebbing flight by flight—I can't feel my toes if I don't keep wiggling them, and that only works for my first hour on board—so I'd better make some changes. Soon.

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