Mary Miller always comes back to Mississippi. After stints in Austin and Nashville, she has ended up back at home each time – to Jackson, Hattiesburg, Oxford. But it was life on the Coast that inspired her latest novel, “Biloxi”, its aging, nihilistic protagonist and his gagging, goofy canine companion.
Miller attempts to carry neither the mantle of “Southern literature” nor “Southern writer.” In “Biloxi,” the South shines through and demands attention.
Enter Louis: a divorced, retired Fox News-watching 63-year-old who can count his reasons to live on one hand and Layla, a lovable quirky mutt who’s overweight, licks a lot of feet and gags.
We meet Louis when he’s waist-deep in an existential crisis. His longtime wife has left him. His relationship with his only daughter is fraught at best. And, most pressing to him, he has quit his job in anticipation of inheriting his recently deceased father’s estate.
He also drinks too much and eats a lot of fast food. He can’t be bothered to make repairs around the house, finding strange comfort in a world crumbling around him. He finds misanthropy easier than forcing himself out of his comfort zone to connect with others.
Similarly, Layla has her own shortcomings when it comes to being a dog’s dog. She doesn’t fetch, isn’t obedient, and – much to her new owner’s dismay – can’t catch a piece of bologna to save her life. But through their idiosyncrasies, or perhaps because of them, they team up and tackle the obstacles of life together.
“Ultimately, he’s not that old. He’s just sort of miserable,” Miller says of Louis, and it takes shaking his routine for him to wake up a little.
As for Layla, Louis narrates: “She was a contradiction, like so many of us, strong in some areas and weak in others … And sometimes weakness only looks like weakness but it really is strength. Layla could swim for miles and live on trash, a champion of the land and sea.”
You can’t read “Biloxi” and not see Mississippi, for better or worse. The imagery of the people and landscape, racial tension and driving down Highway 90. But Miller argues that Louis could be from anywhere. And it’s his complacency and distinct familiarity that makes him unique and compelling.
For Miller, Louis presented a fun challenge in allowing her to write from an older man’s perspective and show how simply letting a little odd dog into one’s life on a whim can ever-so-slightly shift one’s perspective.
The opening scene where we meet Louis and watch him stumble into adopting Layla was inspired by a real-life Gulf Coast experience. When Miller lived in Gulfport, she spent a lot of time cruising the coast and happened upon a “free dogs” sign tethered to a bunch of birthday balloons. She thought to herself: who would get rid of dogs this way? And, moreover, who would adopt dogs this way?
When Miller read this passage at her signing at Jackson’s Lemuria bookstore last month, the dry humor dripped from every word, and you could tell she was still getting a kick out of the scene and the character born out of it.
“It just all seemed pretty trashy,” she said with a laugh. “Louis is just a narrow-minded, unthoughtful, bull-in-a-china-shop kinda guy.”
“Biloxi” is Miller’s second novel, coming on the heels of her smart, stoic short story collection titled “Always Happy Hour.” If readers are familiar with her previous work, they will recognize parts of Louis.
“He’s pretty negative. He’s pretty pessimistic. He doesn’t really value or see a lot of worth within himself. Louis was just this older, lonelier, grumpier version of myself,” Miller said of finding the character and giving him a sense of place.
“There is no other place like the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” Miller said, adding, “It was a really lonely place for me,” which brought a lot of Louis’ circumstances out in the book, she said.
But through all of this, his humanity often sneaks through. Louis grows more thoughtful as we get to know him, or maybe, because we get to know him.
In one passage, he watches his granddaughter count via Mississippis and thinks: “Even in Mississippi the children counted Mississippis—we had the river and the measurement of seconds. We had a lot of other stuff, too, stuff that others would never know about because they only wanted to rehash the bad things.”
Those scenes, combined with Miller’s ability to be sparse where necessary and lavish where scenes demands, is what makes her writing, and “Biloxi” so compelling.
Find out more about Mary Miller and “Biloxi” (Liverlight, $24.95) here.