A few years back, I asked a librarian if he had any book recommendations. The man leaned in and said only one name—his tone quiet, almost a whisper, like he was letting me in on a secret known only to a select few. That name was Mary Miller.
The stories of Miller’s acerbic and grittily beautiful new collection, Always Happy Hour, have this kind of passed-along-secret quality to them. Full of the quiet, candid, and often troubling revelations that usually come while lying in bed next to a loved one, or in the back booth of a bar around the announcement of last call. In one story, a boyfriend reveals that he once pulled a dead baby out of the Ganges thinking it was a “pile of rags.” In another, a woman recounts flushing a crack rock down a toilet the night she discovered that she was pregnant.
These sixteen booze soaked narratives are abound with shocking moments, but never without purpose. “…it had taken me years to figure out the difference between writing the truth and writing something explicit and ugly that only looked like the truth,” reveals one narrator, an unhappy university writer-in-residence occupying an absurdly fancy house—and increasingly absurd existence—in the slow-burning and cumulatively powerful “The House on Main Street.”
This self-examination is typical of a number of Miller’s protagonists: young women, perceptive, creative—many of them writers—living in small towns in the Deep South. It’s a setting that often contrasts and adds depth to the dreamy introspection of her narrators to great effect. Aided by clear and incisive prose, Miller’s sharp, socioeconomic eye is what helps so many of her stories transcend. In the backdrop we get fields of abandoned FEMA trailers left from Hurricane Katrina, or thoughts on whether rich people keep their hotel rooms cleaner than poor people. Lives of destitution, yes, in many cases, yet Miller’s characters appear fully self-conscious of their financial circumstances, cycles of self-destruction, or identities: “I don’t consider the actuality of my situation, which is that every day I live this life it becomes more and more mine, the real one, and the one I’m supposed to be living falls further away; eventually, it will be gone forever.”
Mostly, they just feel real. However, they’re intent on getting by in their own thrifty ways. Living in the cracks of university stipends, swiping stacks of outdated Cosmo’s from a laundromat, or taking full advantage of that singular, enduring glory: happy hour.
In Miller’s Southern Gothic, characters are just as likely to grab some Taco Bell and Netflix and Chill, as they are to, for example, go on a drunken turtle hunt (as in the hard-hitting, “Dirty”—one of the most complex and raw portrayals of a relationship maybe since Denis Johnson’s “Dirty Wedding”). “I’ll be sad I didn’t accidentally get pregnant while I had the chance,” says Amy, who’s left her government job to live out her days at her “slumlord” boyfriend’s place as she awaits the inevitable reality of him joining the ranks of her ex’s.
Always thrives in its depictions of love. The stories examine sex, love, and relationships in a way that is gloriously unsentimental, exposing all of the hypocrisy and pleasure, mundanity and ugliness and compromise, and even, sometimes, flat out danger. It’s sobering up more than the other person to give them a ride to the nearest fast food joint, or being that someone to simply “watch television with and wander through the aisles of Winn-Dixie,” as in the standout title story. It’s an escape, a way to pass the time. Not unlike alcohol, which Miller’s characters knock back at a rate that even Carver’s hard drinkers would have had a hard time matching.
Miller has a sly sense for deadpan absurdity layered behind the hyper focus of her detail. In the odd and funny opening story, “Instructions,” the narrator ponders the subtextual implications of her boyfriend’s use of “Love you” instead of “I love you” while quietly panicking that his cat may have swallowed a missing razor blade. Is it a hidden message? Is it arbitrary? We, like the narrator, can only guess. Though in a sense, this scene acts as a microcosm for the entire collection. Miller’s stories hinge on this tension of nonchalance and precision. One word has the power to change everything. Then again, maybe it doesn’t.