Zeitguy

UP IN THE AIR

By Walter Kirn

Doubleday -- 303pp -- $23.95

Following a guy around the country on his quest to ring up 1 million frequent-flier miles doesn't sound like the most dramatic premise for a novel. But Walter Kirn, a sometime journalist who also writes novels and edits fiction for GQ magazine, uses this concept to spin out one of the most insightful and darkly satirical yarns in recent memory.

The star of Kirn's Up in the Air is Ryan Bingham, a 35-year-old divorced Minnesota native who specializes in "career transition counseling" for Integrated Strategic Management (ISM), a Denver consulting firm. In other words, Bingham's forte is "shafting people." He doesn't live in a specific place: "Planes and airports are where I feel at home," Bingham tells us. "It's the people I'll never meet who most intrigue me."

Bingham is nearing the end of his rope. He is preparing to quit ISM. Having grown disgusted with his job--his life, really--Bingham is looking to make a fresh start. So he concocts one last weeklong, helter-skelter trip that will push him over the million-mile mark, after which he feels he'll be able to move on and pursue any number of new opportunities. The main exit options include landing a new job with MythTech, another bizarre consulting outfit; penning a parable about innovation called The Garage; or persuading a business guru to buy into his wacky plan to play "Muzak-like recordings" of the guru's lectures in "hallways, lavatories, and lobbies." Of course, all these plans go to hell. A big part of the novel's fun is watching the plans--and the man--lapse into a surreal tailspin.

The most memorable part of the novel, however, is Kirn's characterization of Bingham, a unique addition to the literary landscape. He is an extremely alienated, paranoid control freak--who somehow manages to charm the pants off everyone. Much of Bingham's appeal stems from his quirky observations on life at the end of the 20th century. Firing up an espresso maker, for instance, prompts Bingham to conclude that "people aren't grateful enough to such devices." He continues: "I wonder if some imbalance is building up here, a karmic gap between humans and their tools. Machines will be able to think not long from now, and as the descendants of slaves they won't be happy."

Kirn's superb writing also delights. Checking into a decrepit hotel room, Bingham complains about a "fluorescent ceiling strip bright enough to interrogate a gang lord." Bingham's sister Kara "lives south of Salt Lake City in a suburb that might have been squeezed from a tube." And the early morning light in his Las Vegas hotel room is a "stun gun to the soul."

There are times when Up in the Air seems too topical for its own good. A subplot about identity theft, for instance, comes off as tired. But these slip-ups don't happen often enough to spoil the ride. Like David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, Up in the Air captures the zeitgeist of capitalism and masculinity at a particular moment. Bingham is no mere capitalist tool, nor is he a clumsy huckster. He's the guy you see at the airport talking into his neck, and his story will scare you to laughter.

By Spencer E. Ante

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