I just finished Mary Miller's Big World last night. Chris Offutt closes his introduction to the book with this line: "You will close the book with respect for Mary Miller." I couldn't agree more.
Her new book, Last Days of California, is getting good press, and after finishing this collection, I'm not at all surprised. Miller's characters are awkward. They live in an awkward world. And they get by, somehow, despite many odds being against them. This is not a book of stories about triumph, but about sublime dysfunction: relationships that shouldn't last, families that don't work, addiction, abuse, heart break.
Miller is able to create a landscape from just a few notes, and then explore that landscape until it sounds like a symphony of regret, loneliness, and directionless wishes for something better. These people want to connect with one another, they just aren't very good at it. They cheat on their spouses, lie to their parents. They keep rooms in their hearts locked away from everyone else--and then lament their aloneness.
BUT. Like all the sad songs on the radio, these weird, broken lives are beautiful. So beautiful that I was sorry when the last story had spun out like a kid's bike in a dirt yard. Miller demonstrates such a deep empathy and compassion for her characters that it rubs off on the reader. These aren't freaks to gawk at, but real people trying to get by--just like anyone. Just like you and me.
NOTES: I'm unsure how to make that link smaller--still learning where all the closets and outlets are in the new blog home. Also, if you use the above link to buy a copy of Miller's book, I will make a few cents. You can also buy it from Powell's and from Hobart and I won't make anything--but Miller herself, and her indie publisher, might make a little more. Spend your money wisely.