Mini Review: “Always Happy Hour,” by Mary Miller

Always Happy Hour, by Mary Miller

Always Happy Hour is a satisfying and ultimately dismaying collection of short stories that could have been a country & western song, and probably has been. The protagonists are young women somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five who are presented under different names but are obviously the same person: fairly attractive, diffident, insecure, appreciative of beer, marijuana, and hot sex with men, unable to commit though highly adept at wanting to, with a string of lost or discarded lovers trailing into the past and, apparently, into the future as well. She likes kids as long as they’re not hers, establishing sometimes reluctant grandmotherly relationships with the offspring of her current flames, or in one case the clients of placement service she works for. She suffers from anxiety and often depression, and regularly seeks out “beautiful loser” types, good-looking men who are going nowhere except, possibly, back to jail, or back to their ex-wives.

An air of cynical despair pervades each story, a gray haze that makes even Russian novels seem sunny. One is surprised that no suicides are written into the tales, nor any overt violence. Perhaps such devices would have been too obvious for Miller to choose them. And choose she does: she is a superb writer, and her skill in shaping sentences, crafting dialogue, and structuring the stories makes even the depressing subject matter engaging and often vital.

Beer-soaked trips to malls and convenience stores in shabby suburbs of the sort that your artier documentary photographers seek out; friends who almost can’t stand each other’s company but can’t let go; men who don’t work living with women who don’t care; half-hearted attempts at college, half-assed jobs that a trained ape could do, half-wit counsel given by the terminally distracted to the terminally lost; the great American landscape of wide roads and narrow minds–all explored in a restrained Hemingwayan ticktock of subtle phrasing and spot-on spouts of vernacular poetry that make this a powerful and graceful telling of despair.

And an important book, because this is what much of US life is like: the quiet desperation that Thoreau noted nearly two hundred years ago, and which still defines the quotidian for so many of the nation’s denizens. This telling is set in the South, mostly Mississippi and Texas, but it could be almost anywhere in the country, including the Inland Empire just two or three traffic jams from Hollywood. It is not populated with the grotesques common in Southern fiction; it’s a workaday despair the author memorializes here. With some gaps, of course: though the stories are set in the South, black people rarely show up (the story about the child placement service, “Big Bad Love,” being a major exception). And the character is a little too self-defeating at times; her intrapersonal ineptness sometimes comes across as a device. Still, so many young women in literature have explored this territory recently that it is not likely to be a mythical country. Miller is one of the best.

Miller implies that she has lived this life by first dedicating the book to her exes, and then, in the acknowledgements at the end, thanking them for providing her “materials for years to come.” If so, I feel sorry for her, but damn, she made something good out of it all.

Rick Risemberg