In Mary Miller’s latest novel, “Biloxi,” 63-year-old retiree Louis McDonald Jr. is lost in an endless routine of isolation and self-pity after his wife Ellen abandons him. He flips on Fox News even though he detests Tucker Carlson. He eats restaurant leftovers belonging to his ex-wife’s brother, Frank. He naps in his comfortable chair while awaiting an inheritance from his father, which, if it comes through, will support him for the rest of his life.
Diabetes, depression, heavy drinking and fears of irrelevancy permeate Louis’ thoughts. Though Frank visits frequently and his adult daughter Maxine and granddaughter Laurel live nearby, Louis sometimes worries whether anyone would notice if he suddenly vanished off the face of the earth. “Living alone was terrifying. There were no witnesses, no one to call. I was afraid of my own voice.”
Without his former insurance sales job to drag him out of bed every morning, Louis struggles to keep busy and fill his time each interminable day. “It was 5:30, the best time of day. Soon I’d eat dinner, maybe fix myself a drink first. And then it would be dark and I could go to sleep at any time after that.”
Aside from quick trips to the grocery store and Walgreens, Louis is a recluse who avoids social interaction whenever possible. “Home was a funny thing. You returned and you didn’t know why, you returned even when it was the last place you wanted to be, perhaps because it was the only place you could imagine.” Even when he emerges from his abode, he fumbles through conversations with others, especially women, never quite sure how to talk or act or simply be. “There was a lot of conflicting information on what it meant to be a man, what it meant to be a good man.”
Remnants of his ex-wife, her purple hairbrush and her toiletries, linger in their former marital home, but it’s her biting words that Louis can’t get out of his head: “(Y)ou never could accept my love. You were never happy and there was nothing I could do to change that.” Although he worked five days a week, did yard work and took care of the house, Ellen complained he was lazy. It’s an insult that, upon reflection, Louis eventually puts into perspective. “I’d heard people liked to accuse you of the traits they disliked in themselves.” In his more morbid moments, Louis wonders whether he should end it all the with a gun he has locked up in his study. But his fears about how the small town gossipers would talk about him after his death keep him from putting a bullet in his head.
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
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