Mary Miller seizes the mantle of southern US literature with Biloxi, a tender, gritty tale of middle age and the unexpected turns a life can take.
Building on her critically acclaimed novel The Last Days of California and her biting collection Always Happy Hour, Miller transports readers to this delightfully wry, unapologetic corner of the south—Biloxi, Mississippi, home to sixty-three-year-old Louis McDonald, Jr.
Louis has been forlorn since his wife of thirty-seven years left him, his father passed away and he impulsively retired from his job in anticipation of an inheritance that may not come. These days he watches reality television and tries to avoid his ex-wife and daughter, benefiting from the charity of his former brother-in-law, Frank, who religiously brings over his Chili’s leftovers and always stays for a beer.
Yet the past is no predictor of Louis’s future. On a routine trip to Walgreens to pick up his diabetes medication, he stops at a sign advertising free dogs and meets Harry Davidson, a man who claims to have more than a dozen canines on offer, but offers only one: an overweight mixed breed named Layla. Without any rational explanation, Louis feels compelled to take the dog home, and the two become inseparable. Louis, more than anyone, is dumbfounded to find himself in love—bursting into song with improvised jingles, exploring new locales and re-evaluating what he once considered the fixed horizons of his life. With her “sociologist’s eye for the mundane and revealing” (Joyce Carol Oates, New York Review of Books), Miller populates the Gulf Coast with Ann Beattie-like characters. A strangely heartwarming tale of loneliness, masculinity, and the limitations of each, Biloxi confirms Miller’s position as one of our most gifted and perceptive writers.
At first glance Biloxi seemed like a straightforward story of one man and a rescued dog. It wasn’t until Miller peeled away the layers that you realised it was anything but simple.
Louis was the main man, retired, divorced and alone. Did he like being alone or was the aloneness forced upon him? As the reader, you had to say it was a mixture of circumstance and choice, Louis was somehow adrift, no structure to his day, no idea who to be and where to go as a newly single man.
I felt a smidgeon sorry for him, but a large part of me wanted to shake him out of his reverie, make him take care of himself, eat properly and exercise.
The acquisition of Layla, the free dog from a house he just happened to pass, acted like a door left slightly ajar, as Miller used Layla to gently push or squeeze Louis through.
You could see small chunks of light appear in his mind as he saw the possibilities of a new life on the horizon. Yet things are never that simple, and Miller excelled at the anguish and angst she put him through.
The irreverent house guest with her feminine wiles, the chance meeting of a woman in a bar gave Louis the opportunity to assess the role of the women who had been in his life, namely his wife. Did he want another relationship, were they important to his happiness, his life?
Miller examined the relationship with his father, the impending inheritance, the freedom it promised, or alternatively the chain around his neck.
Yet it was his interaction with Layla, that well and truly opened him up. She got him up in the morning, made him walk the streets, the city of Biloxi, gave him responsibility and maybe that will to stay alive, to make changes that you hoped would make him happier.
Millers prose was careful and considered as she probed Louis’s mindset, as she widened his horizons. The exploration of loneliness, of loss was touching and tender, no cliches, none of the usual stereotypical nuances so beloved by many authors. She gave Louis and us hope, a world of possibilities and the wonderful after effects of a superb novel.
I would like to thank W W Norton for a copy of Biloxi to read and to Emily Cary-Elwes for inviting My Bookish Blogspot to review.
About the author
MARY MILLER is the author of three previous books, including the story collection Always Happy Hour and the novel The Last Days of California. She is a former James A. Michener Fellow and John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi.