That is, until a chance detour to avoid bumping into Ellen leads him to a home advertising free dogs, where he’s offered an overweight border collie with a gag reflux named Layla. When he left home to pick up Pepsi and a refill of his diabetes medication, he never would have thought he’d end up with a pet he never knew he wanted. But the unexpected transaction grants him instant gratification.
Louis is a work in progress who can be rude, abrupt and inappropriate. His desire to connect with a spontaneous and flighty woman named Sasha leads to a creepy sort of voyeurism that borders on stalking. And though his interactions with other human beings may be fraught, he is tender and sensitive toward Layla. They make for an endearing, oddball couple, and Layla helps Louis envision a new future. “I had been living a very small and quiet life but no longer! No longer would I live a small life; it might still be quiet — I had yet to hear Layla bark — but it wouldn’t be so small.”
Louis shows his new companion the Mississippi Sound, the casinos, the Hard Rock Café, the Biloxi lighthouse and the seagulls. He serenades her with songs he spontaneously composes. Through Layla’s loving eyes, Louis finds his purpose, a partnership, a new soulmate with someone not unlike himself. “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 is really strength.” Even the smallest, most mundane realities bring him comfort. “There was plenty of beer in the refrigerator and money for pizzas and hamburgers, everything we needed and nobody hounding us. It was a (expletive) miracle.”
One wishes for a deeper understanding of how Louis’ marriage with Ellen unraveled, or why he continues to hold Maxine, his formerly reckless teenage daughter turned doting wife and conscientious mother, at arms’ length. “I missed my daughter. I wished I knew her and was sad to think I never would, that my not knowing her had been my fault. Of course it had been my fault.” What’s more, insight into Louis’ relationship with his brother who died in Vietnam, or how this death affected him, is largely absent in “Biloxi.”
Little space is given to Louis’ father, a school-of-hard-knocks disciplinarian who refused to financially assist his only remaining child. One suspects that Louis’ depression and anxiety stem from past estranged and toxic relationships, but this correlation is difficult to discern given how seldomly these characters are referenced in the novel.
Still, Miller’s prose is crisp, exacting, penetrating. Quiet novels with little at stake can be hard to sustain, but her luminous sentences and quirky characters make for an engaging read. In the end, Louis McDonald Jr. embodies the fluctuating sea in his coastal town. He is a tide that retreats temporarily, only to rise again.
By Mary Miller
Liveright / Norton
256 pages, $24.95