Miller speeds readers down American roads

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WEB miller bookcopyright the Chronicle November 12, 2014

Reviewed by Joseph Gresser

Museum of the Americas, by Gary Lee Miller. Published by Fomite Press, Burlington, 2014. Paperbound, 169 pages, $14.95.

Roads run through the 11 stories in Gary Lee Miller’s collection. Characters travel, or are passed by as they watch others speed out of sight.

This, I suppose, makes him an American writer. The choice between going and staying is one that is central to fiction in a country where it is not unusual for a person to slip his moorings and make another life in another state.

At any rate, Mr. Miller is not a regional writer. Even though he lives in Vermont, only a couple of his well-built tales are set here. Others take place in Pennsylvania, from which he originally hails, and Boston, southern California, and Montreal also provide backdrops for his stories.

Mr. Miller also has a temporal range, with stories that take place in different eras — from Depression-era Pennsylvania, through the sixties, seventies, and to the present.

Each story’s setting is fully convincing, with sufficient detail to suggest the narrator is fully part of his or her surroundings.

The solidity of the places in which Mr. Miller’s characters live, makes them credible as well.

An elderly Vermont farmer looks at his house in “Winter.”

“Fractured shafts of sunlight pierced the hard gray clouds above the ridgeline and angled down onto the tin roof, long gone of paint, the posts of the porch slowing sinking through the ripening floorboards. All of it was going that way. The barn had partially collapsed in a summer storm; rotted planks at the west corner splayed out from the foundation like straw from a broken bale. The house, although better built and looked after, had not seen attention in many seasons, and would follow.”

Tom Grant, the narrator of the book’s title story, lives in the Upper Valley. His father, seeing the influx of visitors from away beginning in the 1940s, decides it would be easier to milk tourists than cows, and turns his barn into the Museum of the Americas.

The museum is filled with jars containing soil collected from places around the country that have historic or geological interest.

That sounds like a touch of magic realism, until one learns that Mr. Miller himself is the possessor of an enormous toothbrush collection, a portion of which is currently on display at the Museum of Every Day Life in Glover.

Completing the circle, Mr. Miller read from his book there, at a recent Day of the Dead celebration.

Amazingly enough, the fictional museum does attract a plentiful supply of visitors until the Interstate arrives, leaving the museum stranded in an untrafficked backwater.

All of this is actually in preparation for a pair of visitors who jar Tom Grant out of his comfortable assumptions and, inadvertently, into a new understanding of his older, ne’er-do-well, brother.

Regardless of their setting, Mr. Miller’s stories, as all good stories do, delve into the way people are, within themselves and with the outside world.

Gary Lee Miller reads at the Museum of Every Day Life in Glover, at a celebration of the Day of the Dead on November 2.  Photo by Joseph Gresser
Gary Lee Miller reads at the Museum of Every Day Life in Glover, at a celebration of the Day of the Dead on November 2. Photo by Joseph Gresser

In “Killing Houdini,” a Montreal man has his deepest secret ferreted out by a woman researcher, who is far more interested in his long-lost love than learning how he killed the famous magician. By the end of the tale, the man learns that his carefully constructed façade never fooled those closest to him, and finds the prospect of joy in that realization.

The difficulty in accepting love, especially if that means also embracing responsibility, is another theme Mr. Miller examines from multiple angles.

Royce, in “Benefits,” takes an unusual job in hopes of enticing his ex-girlfriend to return to him. The lure is a health insurance plan that he knows means he will likely become a father, a role that means putting his roistering days behind him.

In the story’s literally stunning conclusion, Royce resorts to extreme measures to gain what he has only gradually come to realize is his desire.

In “Certain Miracles,” Becker, a confirmed roadrunner, has a similar choice to make. He can leave his girlfriend and newborn daughter behind for the carny life, or settle down and accept the comparative dullness of responsible family life.

Becker never fully makes his choice and Mr. Miller leaves him, and his collection of stories, pulled in opposite directions by the sight of truck headlights heading down the highway and the lingering smell of his newborn daughter.

Mr. Miller’s tales are well crafted. The language can be richly evocative, but never in a way that draws undue attention to itself. A reader may well be drawn into the small worlds he creates, emerging only to discover he has reached the final pages of the volume without quite knowing how he made such a long journey so quickly.

contact Joseph Gresser at [email protected]

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