Here’s my advice: Don’t think too much about this book — just enjoy it.
“Biloxi,” the fourth book by Mary Miller, is an entertaining, endearing story about a late-middle-aged, morose divorced guy who accidentally acquires a dog.
The dog changes his life (as dogs do). For good? For bad? For more complicated? For all those things.
The morose divorced guy is named Louis McDonald Jr., and he narrates the tale. He lives in Biloxi, Miss., in the same house he shared for years with his now-ex-wife, Ellen, and their daughter, Maxine. But Ellen has left him, Maxine has grown and gone, and Louis is feeling unmoored.
And what a pill Ellen was, at least in Louis’ memory. When a friend baked her cookies, Ellen refused to eat them, claiming “the cookies were meant to fatten her up, that they were cookies with bad intent.”
As for his daughter, Louis is not estranged from her so much as he is indifferent to her — a far cry from Maxine’s childhood, when “she had loved me better than anybody in the world,” he says. “She’d reach for my hand, take it and hold it until I couldn’t bear it any longer and had to let go.”
This is a man who, clearly, is not comfortable with vulnerability.
Now 63, Louis has quit his job as an insurance salesman (“a job I was ill-suited for and hated every single day”) and spends his time drinking beer, watching reality TV and waiting for an inheritance that should be coming any day now from his father’s estate. But why won’t the lawyer return his calls? (You can guess why.)
He thinks, from time to time, about the gun he has stashed in his bedroom. Might he use it on himself? Would anyone care?
And then one morning on his way to pick up his diabetes medication at Walgreens, he finds himself in front of a house festooned with balloons and a sign announcing FREE DOGS.
The next thing he knows, he’s putting Layla into his car. She’s a border collie, black and white, a bit overweight and prone to gagging, which is why her owner is giving her away. Plus, the guy said, his new wife is allergic.
And the next thing that happens after that is that Louis finds himself singing nonsensical songs to Layla about how her belly smells like corn chips, and buying her too much stuff at PetSmart. Can such a whirlwind romance last?
Miller’s charming and funny novel grows complicated in a hilarious sort of way, a way that you don’t want to examine too closely, with con men and drunkards, minor story lines that go nowhere, and all kinds of implausible twists and turns.
But the ride is so much fun that you’d be a spoilsport for demanding that it all add up.
Louis is a mostly likable guy, although he does have some cringeworthy observations (which seem not out-and-out racist but probably pretty accurate for a late-middle-aged white guy in Biloxi), and he certainly drinks too much. But after he takes in Layla, he gradually starts taking in other misfits, including the wife of Layla’s first owner (who, as it turns out, was not allergic) and the guy who changes his locks, and it’s clear to the reader, even if it’s not clear to Louis, that he is starting to open up to the world.
Is it possible to change late in life? Is it possible for the hopeless to regain hope? Apparently the answer is yes, if you get a dog.
In the blurbs, critics compare Miller’s work to Lorrie Moore, early Ann Beattie and (oddly) Ernest Hemingway. I’d tuck “Biloxi” somewhere between Stewart O’Nan, who writes so knowingly about the small details of a quiet life, and the comic novels of Jonathan Evison. But why compare it to anyone? Miller’s good all on her own.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune and president of the National Book Critics Circle. 612-673-7302. @StribBooks, facebook.com/startribunebooks.
By: Mary Miller.
Publisher: Liveright, 255 pages, $24.95.