Despite its title, there’s not a lot of happiness going around in Mary Miller’s new collection, Always Happy Hour. “There is nothing more disgusting, really, than people enjoying themselves so thoroughly when you’re miserable,” writes Miller in the book’s opening story, a rather grim yet appropriate introduction to the morbid hilarity that’s to come in the following pages. More than eight years have passed since the release of Miller’s first collection Big World, and after having tackled the art of the novel with The Last Days of California (2014), Miller has returned to her acerbic, crackling short fiction with darker humor and a sharper eye.
“I’ve been writing stories since Big World came out,” says Miller from her home in Gulfport, Mississippi. “I think it kind of reflects how I’ve changed and developed. All of the narrators [in Happy Hour] are definitely versions of myself. They’re very much like me, except a little darker, a little sluttier, a little drunker.”
Much like the riotous stories that unfold in Big World, Miller’s new collection zooms in on a dizzying array of women, living in the deep South, who’ve found themselves stultified by how little they’re regarded and how far they haven’t come in life. Miller felt that same sense of discontent when she was younger: “I lived in a smallish town in east Mississippi and got married really young at 22, but I was also never the type that dreamt of a wedding or being married out of college,” she explains. “And I think gradually I just really started thinking, ‘Is this what people do with their lives?’ ”
Rather than changing direction, Miller’s protagonists continue to date the wrong men—like the deadbeat dad who’s estranged from his children “for reasons that remain unclear” (“Uphill”) or the unemployed boyfriend in the titular story who lives with his mom and, still, curiously, has ludicrous amounts of money—and blot their anxieties with endless supplies of booze. They’re harmless kleptomaniacs, wayward twenty-somethings just looking to score some weed, soon-to-be divorcees sloughing off their pasts with perfunctory hookups. “It’s an ongoing nuisance, this pressure to engage in tedious conversations about dating and work when all I want to do is watch animal videos and stalk my exes,” writes Miller. As much as the collection is about female angst and agency, it’s also about disappointing sex, gambling, flirting with your students, conspiring in potentially criminal activities, and wearing a bikini at all hours of the day (because, why not).
But look beyond their irreverent exteriors, and the anti-heroines in Happy Hour are still vulnerable, concerned people who have feelings, too. Perhaps the best example of this is in the beautifully heartrending story, “Big Bad Love,” in which a woman, working in a foster home, becomes entangled in a fraught relationship with one of the younger, more troubled, girls she cares for.
Firmly placing her among the ranks of fresh, formidable literary talents like Lauren Holmes and Katherine Heiny, Miller’s collection offers a bracing, intimate portrayal of womanhood and all of the baggage that comes with it. It’s brash, gutsy, lurid, and profoundly human. “I hope [this] book finds the ‘right’ readers...ones who will empathize and relate,” says Miller, who teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Mississippi University for Women. “My students complain that I’m always making them read about depressed and dysfunctional people who don’t undergo the substantial changes they want to see by the story’s conclusion….When you’re the teacher, you can assign stories about werewolves or mermaids or happy people or whatever, I tell them, stories in which everything works out in the end.”
Stephanie Buschardt is an editorial assistant at Kirkus Reviews.