When it comes to finding ugliness, unexpected beauty, and weirdness in everyday life, no author does it quite like Mary Miller. Her understated, straightforward prose is a treasure trove of illuminating morsels that strip away pretense and reflect humanity in all its glorious range: unpleasantness, pettiness, aching, love, hope, heartbreak, longing, lust, depression, humor, and confusion abound. At once a novel and a sociological treatise of loneliness and heartbreak, Biloxi, Miller’s latest novel, is a hybrid narrative that’s part novel, part love letter to human darkness, and part ethnographical observation of an old man and his dog. Oh, and it’s all strangely beautiful and engrossing.
Louis McDonald, Jr. is a sixty-three-year-old man living in Biloxi, Mississippi. He had the sort of unremarkable life that makes up most lives in this country. Unfortunately, that normalcy has recently been obliterated by a series of events: his wife of thirty-seven years left him, he retires from his job based on the possibility of an inheritance check that may never come, and his father passed away. In the aftermath of these events, Louis spends his days thinking about his wife and daughter while actively trying to avoid them, dreaming about the inheritance check and future travels, watching reality television, and eating the leftovers from Chili’s his former brother-in-law, Frank, brings him almost daily.
After picking up his diabetes medication one day, Louis sees a sign advertising free dogs, so he stops and checks it out on a whim. There he meets Harry Davidson, a man giving away dogs who offers Louis a mixed breed dog named Layla who has a gagging problem. Louis takes the dog home without much thought and soon the two fall into a routine together that includes walks, eating hamburgers in the car, and going for drives and out to the beach. In a way, Layla’s presence fills the gaps in the old man’s life and he falls in love with the dog. But the story Harry told Louis wasn’t true, and Louis’s curiosity sets in motion a series of events that throw his newfound routine into chaos and introduce a younger woman into his life.
Biloxi is a unique narrative about the effects of loneliness on people and how fragile masculinity is when it’s under pressure from change and heartbreak. Louis is a flawed character who’s a bit racist, ignorant, and a misogynist. However, Miller uses him as a mirror to show us the average American male after certain age, and her incisive observations all take the shape of engaging fiction. Furthermore, Miller somehow manages to humanize Louis through his relationship with the dog:
“Layla,” I called. She was right by my side, focused on the fajitas. I asked here some questions: Was she happy? Did she love me? Was I the most handsome man she’d ever seen? Would we love each other forever? I liked the way her ears went up simply because whatever silly thing I’d said had been phrased as a question. She would accept my faults and ask for nothing in return besides some bologna and a bit of attention whenever I felt up to giving it to her. She didn’t need me to tell her I would never love anyone else or that I’d die for her. But I could tell her those things and they’d be true. It was easy with a dog. I didn’t have to give her flowers or remember her birthday, didn’t even know her birthday. She would never be disappointed in me. I felt like I’d never loved anyone more.
Some readers will have a hard time looking inside Louis’s head, but they have to remember that Miller created him and that showing us a type of character was probably her only goal. Every time Louis thinks something horrible, the author is inviting us into a common reality that we don’t have to share in order to recognize as real, and as problematic.
She was young and overly confident for someone her size, with her face. What would happen if I called her a fathead-know-it-all bitch? Would I be thrown out of the store? It was possible. The idea excited me.
It’s easy to dismiss Louis as a misogynist character, but we must remember he was created by a woman. Miller created a character we’ve all met and then showed us everything going on his head, the good, the bad, and the ugly. The result is a man who can touch your heart with his simplicity and aching solitude on one page and disgust you with his views on women the next:
I sat with them on the grass and Sasha let me pet the dog, too. She’d stopped crying but she still had the black streaks and I thought about all the times I’d seen women cry. Each time it happened it could never break you like it had the first time, and it became less and less effective until, at some point, it was as horrible and ugly as it looked. When Ellen and I were learning to hate each other, she’d cried a lot, once or twice a week. How to care after a certain point?
Biloxi is one of those rare narratives that are beautiful because of how unpleasant they are. Miller is a master storyteller who knows about the dark, slimy things inside people and writes about them unapologetically. This is a novel that will touch some hearts and turn some stomachs. Most importantly, it’s a novel that further cements Miller as one of the most unique and talented voices in contemporary fiction.
by Mary Miller
Liveright; 224 p.