by Mary Miller
Small Lives, Big World
A review by Sheila Ashdown
Mary Miller's Big World is populated by women and girls, mostly unnamed, who share a bleak sense of being trapped -- be it by circumstance or inertia -- in a permanent state of temporary fix. Their lives are not abnormal; their problems are relatively pedestrian: a beautiful waitress knows she has to keep sleeping with her boss to keep her job; a woman drinks because, if she quit, she'd "have all this time on [her] hands." But in Miller's capable hands, the mundane becomes exemplary of the ways that missteps and habits cement themselves into low-level tragedy.
Miller has an admirable, and enviable, ability to open a story with some sort of commonplace tension -- a leaky roof, an unsatisfying temp job -- and excavate its implications. "Animal Bite," for instance, opens at the emergency room, where the narrator is being treated for a dog bite. But, a story about a dog bite is transformed into a story about marital unhappiness as soon as the narrator and her husband, Ed, return home. Ed, says the narrator, "wasn't a bad guy," but he has a personality comprised of cliched one-liners and a love of football. Their relationship survives on habit: "We always went to bed at the same time even though he was a morning person and I was a night person. It was something we'd started and it seemed too late to stop." The narrator contemplates leaving, and she contemplates suicide, but we know she won't do either. Even when she holds her husband's gun in her hand, she's resigned to life: "I would wait this thing out. I'd wait it out past the point of nothing to wait for."
"Animal Bite" is representative of most of the stories in Big World -- stalled lives, disconnection, low expectations -- but their darkness is tempered by Miller's wit and her exceedingly fine prose. Her writing is both tough and lovely, and peppered with seemingly effortless profundities extracted from small moments:
I'd taken my trash into the alley and a homeless man looked right at me and said, I'll take that, and I gave it to him and he said, thank you, which undid everything that had been so carefully done inside me.
Though Miller's characters inhabit circumscribed lives, they continue on with a strangely admirable tenacity. Miller gives them each their due with her meticulously crafted portraits, and, in the end, her slice-of-life stories indeed add up to create a big world.