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Love in the Mississippi heart

Mary Miller reflects on loneliness, aging and a good dog in 'Biloxi'

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

Are there bits of Mary Miller in Louis McDonald Jr., the unlikable but compelling protagonist of Miller’s new novel “Biloxi"?

Oh my, yes.

The onetime Austinite — she was a Michener Center fellow at the University of Texas for a spell and departed our fair city in 2014 — and Jackson, Miss., native found herself at a weird low point when she starting putting together “Biloxi.”

“After I left Austin,” Miller says from her home in Oxford, Miss., “I had a gig as the John and Renee Grisham writer in residence at Ole Miss. When that job was up, my boyfriend and I broke up, and I ended up spending time on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

It was just Miller and her dog and the most conservative part of a state known for its conservatism. In a not exactly shocking turn of events, Miller began to feel a little alienated and pretty lonely. (She and the boyfriend eventually married, in case any of you were worried.)

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That is when Louis came to her: “We were both kinda feelin’ each other,” Miller says in a Mississippi accent so pure it should be in some sort of accent database.

Louis, the cranky narrator of “Biloxi,” is 63 years old. He’s an older white guy who would probably watch Fox News as his link to current events if he didn’t think all the news channels were “bought.” His wife left him, and his daughter keeps her distance. He is not in a great place, even as his well-meaning brother-in-law Frank, perhaps the most boring man alive, tries to keep him company.

When Louis comes into possession of a fat mutt with breathing problems named Layla (“Yes, I also have a dog with breathing problems,” Miller says), it looks as if his world will expand a little bit. When the dog’s actual ownership comes into question, Louis begins to build relationships that seemed impossible to fathom only months earlier.

The timeliness of “Biloxi” is striking. Many news articles have charted the growing epidemic of loneliness in American men. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the rate of suicide in the U.S. is highest among middle-aged white men. 

Louis fits the mold of isolation. Miller says she wasn’t necessarily aiming for that.

“I never think about the audience, to be honest,” Miller says. “Louis was who came to me at the time. But he certainly resembles a lot of the men down here, and I know that my dad without my mom in the picture might result in him just watching his programs and waiting for the clock to run out.”

The way men and women are socialized doesn’t help much.

“All these studies show that women are able to maintain their friendships over long periods of time,” Miller says. “Men often don’t maintain those connections. With Louis, his wife was his lifeline to the community. Without her involvement in his life, he just finds himself totally alone. Then again, 25 years from now, this could be any of our lives with a few bad choices and a little bad luck.”

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The most intriguing relationship in the book is between Louis and Sasha, the dog’s original (and current?) owner, a much younger woman who tries to forge a bond with him. While charmed, Louis doesn’t know what to make of it.

“Sasha piques his interest because he has so little else going on,” Miller says. “So he gets a little obsessive. I didn’t do any sort of planning about this book. When I had him meet Sasha, it just hit me: ‘Yeah, of course this is what would happen. This is Sasha’s dog, so Louis has this reaction to her.' But then, I don’t think I ever completely figured Sasha out. She seems like a bit of a grifter, a little unpredictable.”

As for the place itself, Miller says she doesn’t see leaving Mississippi anytime soon.

“I keep getting sucked back here,” she says. “My husband is from here, his work is here, we have family here. I don’t see us saying, ‘Let’s try Wyoming.’ Despite how messed up the state is (politically), it’s a pretty wonderful place.”

Miller feels that way about a lot of her characters: “Louis was the only one that I knew well. I’m not sure I know much about Frank either. All I know about Frank is he’s the only person Layla hates.”

God bless dogs.

STATESMAN SELECTS

Mary Miller will speak and sign copies of “Last Woman Standing” at 7 p.m. June 10 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd., as part of the Statesman Selects series. The reading portion is free and open to the public. Only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: www.bookpeople.com