When you settle in to read Gary Lee Miller’s debut story collection Museum of the Americas (July 2014), get ready to be thrilled and chilled, to weep and laugh, to marvel like a child at the narrative wonders contained within its pages. Only afterward, once you’ve managed to release yourself from the narrative riptide of these stories, will you stop to think, ‘Oh, wow! What a debut! What a wonderful new writer!’
The eleven stories in Museum of the Americas are concerned, in one way or another, with love and loss and loneliness and redemption, but they play out through an unconventional cast of characters, most of them poor and marginalized, the kind of people ignored by mass media, and unseen by the middle and upper classes. Miller appears to be obsessed with history and also passionate about the men, women and children who stumble their ways through it, alive to the worlds he creates for them.
In the title story, “Museum of the Americas,” Tom Grant owns a decrepit and mostly forgotten museum displaying, in rows of Bell jars, earth samples from all over the Americas that he inherited from his father. He also inherited a set of rigid ‘Christian’ values and terrible memories of abuse. When an elderly couple visits the museum, on a mission to connect with their dead son through a particular earth sample, Tom’s carefully constructed world begins to collapse. Tom at first refuses them, but their quest eventually forces him to confront his shortcomings and longings, and finally into a transcendent moment as he drinks muddy water from an exhibit jar his visitors have emptied and left behind. The story moves toward magic as the water feels “cool and sweet” (15) on his tongue.
“In His Condition” explores the emotional and psychological ravages of alcoholism as the narrator, on a seven-week long bender, ponders his uncle’s addiction and that man’s recovery through his devotion to collecting butterflies. He is home, in the house where he grew up, searching for his own “saving thing” as his mother, downstairs, calls doctors and drunk farms, hoping to find a placement for him. A detox, he says, “is just a place to store me…As I get better I will get worse. I will find the strength to drink again” (151). His bedroom “is redolent of bat crack and mitt leather, memories made tragic by the way I have abandoned my life” (150). The story paints as harrowing and convincing a picture of alcoholism as Charles R. Jackson’s classic novel The Lost Weekend, but Miller does it in five pages.
Several of Miller’s stories, set so carefully in place and time, edge toward the magical, while others, including “Night Train,” “Killing Houdini” and “Certain Miracles” weave lyricism into traditional realism and historical events. Afficionados of short fiction may detect whiffs of Russell Banks, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Denis Johnson and Daniel Woodrell in the work of Miller, but Miller offers a bit more lyricism in his prose, along with a tad more tenderness in his resolutions. He also plots his stories precisely, making the genre his own. A museum is a place that holds items of historical and artistic value. Hence, Museum of the Americas seems a particularly apt title for Gary Lee Miller’s first collection of short fiction.
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