"Always Happy Hour" by Mary Miller; Liveright (243 pages, $24.95)
Life isn't always happy, but for the women in "Always Happy Hour," it seems it's always time for some discount drinks.
Mississippi native and former Michener Fellow Mary Miller sets several of her stories in Central Texas, including Austin and Round Rock. The stories have a Southern flavor that deliver on the publisher's promise of a book with savage Southern charm and hard-edged prose.
That promise created an expectation of well-crafted tales, which the author delivers. But don't expect a lot of charm from strong women with a sense of humor. Instead, it can be a bit of a slog to sort through the stories of women in modern relationships that leave them dead inside.
The women pinch their stomachs, keeping a constant vigil over their weight while beer, pot and pills undermine their health. Their sexual experiences are often more about humiliation than pleasure. The characters have a special knack for choosing men who are bad news and for digging a deeper ditch for themselves while the hours of young adulthood tick away.
Miller's characters are largely on the low to middle end of the economic scale, women with no inherited wealth or inborn advantage. They're like butterflies obliviously drifting toward the trapper's net and the kill jar.
The title story, "Always Happy Hour," is a slice from the life of Alice, who's dating a man, Richie, who has a son. Alice can't quite adjust to not being able to curse or kiss her boyfriend when the child is around and thinks, "I'm supposed to pretend like he is the most important thing because he's a child." Richie and Alice also appear in "At One Time This Was the Longest Covered Walkway in the World," in which Alice is anxious Richie will end the relationship. When he does, Alice thinks, he will "be leaving the girl you thought I was, who was kind of like me, but not." Instead of doing the emotional work to find herself, she wonders how she can change to keep him.
Many of the stories evoke Geraldo Rivera's comments a couple of years ago on Fox News' "Outnumbered," where he said of beta or trial marriage: "What a woman brings to a marriage, more than anything else, to a relationship, is her youth." Few liked Rivera for it, and it's not easy to like the messages in this story collection. Rivera went on to say that if the man later rejects her, "I think that she has given up a valuable asset that is unequal - in other words, the man gets everything and the woman gets nothing from this arrangement."
Squandered young adulthood is a theme In "Where All of the Beautiful People Go," in which a woman visits a friend whose mother died six days earlier. As the young women float in a swimming pool, the narrator thinks, "I could do better, it's completely within my ability, and Aggie could do better, but we allow ourselves to neglect the most important things as we tell ourselves we're doing our best. I open my mouth and close it, decide to keep this information to myself."
In "Uphill," a woman travels to another town with her ex-convict boyfriend on a hazy mission involving taking a photo of a woman, most likely to provide a picture to her assassin. The narrator sits on a bed with its ugly, pilled comforter and looks at her arms, which are covered with finger-shaped bruises.
"There is no voice that tells me to stop, that says what I am doing is wrong. I can't remember if there ever was a voice. I don't remember a voice." Later, she takes stock of what she has learned from her boyfriends and decides this man "has taught me sex without love, a Buddhist's degree of unattachment." Um, no. This woman has developed some world-class rationalization skills, though. The only hope comes from glimpses of self-awareness: "I don't consider the actuality of my situation, which is that every day I live this life it becomes more and more mine, the real one, and the one I'm supposed to be living falls further away; eventually it will be gone forever."
In "Big Bad Love," the narrator works at a shelter for abused children. The work is hard and unrewarding, but one child, Diamond, is a particular favorite. The 7-year-old has too many behavior problems to place her with a family, and she returns to the shelter. The narrator tries to do special things for the child and is left wondering "if Diamond will remember that someone loved her once, if she'll have any memory of me at all."
As difficult as it is to like many of the characters, Miller casts light on the lives of young women facing life's pivot points. Such moments and decisions can seem overwhelming, and you don't have the perspective to realize that later, these will be remembered as the glory days. It's frustrating to read about women mired in the illusion that they have such an abundance of days remaining in their lives that they can afford to waste them.
If this sounds like a negative review, it's actually the opposite. The best literature illuminates the human condition and provokes contemplation. Miller puts readers inside the experiences of these women, has us stand in their socks, make their mistakes and survive.