MILLER'S WOMEN AND MEN
O. Victor Miller, One Man's Junk, Snake Nation Press, Valdosta, Georgia, 1994, 159 pages, $11.00 paper.
Nadine is the queen of the graveyard shift fishing bar in "The Lost Cause." Like most women in Victor Miller's short story collection, "One Man's Junk", she offers hope and salvation for fragile, male egos disguised and engaged in what too often simply is written off as "boys will be boys" behavior.
Nadine operated the bar when Mack, proprietor and bartender, was away receiving treatment for his alcoholism. It is Nadine who saves Mack from taking up drinking again when he inhales fumes from microwaved vodka used to revive one of the patrons of the bar whose tongue has been hooked by the steel prosthesis claw of another regular. Nadine also takes care of Calvin, the man with the steel hook; in fact, she has been known to sleep with him, much to the dismay of Mack, who hopes Nadine will someday bed him. However, Nadine's refusal does not drive Mack to drink; on the contrary, that glimmer of hope--like the one emanating from the amber amulet Nadine has given Mack to rub and remind him to keep sober--works to convince Mack that Nadine one of these days just might have him completely if he only stays out of trouble.
Other women in Miller's short story world also offer men hope. Sometimes they seem to effect a momentary rebirth, as when in "Fool's Hill" the appropriately named Walter Goodman leaves his work and wife behind in Indiana and lands in Florida, where he meets yet another appropriately named character, Calliope Jones. She becomes his muse of youth and ultimately acts cold and crass like her common last name. While taking a swim with his muse and other members of the strange, youthful household he has happened upon, Goodman encounters a shark. It is the cold, epiphanic realization that youth is no longer his or for him; nor is unexamined worship of old age the right course to take in life, as that symbolized by Padre Paco in the story, whom the young people have taken into their love and drug nest as an idolatrous household pet. Ultimately Goodman's response is one which appears to have the endorsement of the author: He returns home to his wife Fay, who belongs to the real world, where clocks tick unavoidably and audibly. On a similar note, in "One Man's Junk," the title story of the collection, after a not altogether satisfying communion with a possession-collecting, dumpster-preying young Tabby Ann, the main character goes home to his wife Ava and accepts her advice not to spend his time milling around dumpsters.
The women Miller's men return to are middle-aged, keeping the house together while at the same time working to keep their bodies together through exercise. They do not offer the baby-fat flesh the middle-aged men lust after, but they take care of their men, with advice and probably an occasional session of "Victoria's Secret" costumed sex.
This is not to say that Miller asserts the male's preprogrammed prerogative to interact without sympathy or empathy in his quest for woman's favors. In "Land of the Morning Calm," set in Korea, we experience with PFC Hyram Hurt (again Miller employs a telling name) the pain of a prostitute mistreated. Two of Hurt's fellow soldiers describe taking Kim Soo, whom Hurt has been giving money to keep as his exclusive mistress, against her will. The ultimate symbol of brutality, helplessness, and dependence comes together in one soldier's description of his peeing into the fishbowl of Kim Soo and the resultant anguish experienced by the fish and Kim Soo. At the same time, with great poignancy, the symbol of the pet/kept fish refuses to grant Hurt any absolution. He too is guilty. A woman should never be kept, at least not in Miller's world. Nadine in "The Lost Cause" makes this perfectly clear; she refuses to allow any man contribute to have her teeth fixed; no man will have bought any part of her.
In his preoccupation of rendering male-female relationships throughout "One Man's Junk," Miller should be lauded for his original voice and one man quest. Miller will not disappoint anyone who is partial to Robert Graves's musings on the triple goddess and moments of D. H. Lawrence when he is not preaching, along with a gallery of Southern writers, because Miller fits into this tradition while writing neither consciously against or with these influences. Only "Blood Mountain Legacy" disappoints slightly. Its linguistic mode and obsessed, key-wielding Lionel like the maniacally sawing Darl in As I Lay Dying shows the imprint of Faulkner; but even here Miller manages to write himself out of the shadow; it is only a shame Miller did not see the shadow and chase it away before making the final draft to be included in what is very much his Junk.
Miller can write pure farce when such is needed. "Two Dogs" provides the singular complete relief in a book of mostly serious stories. This is not say that the other stories are without humor. "The Cave," runner-up for comic relief, will make even the most serious critic or reviewer laugh out loud with its larger-than-life appearance of the bullying summer resort manager Moose. This story also provides the comfort of nostalgia, maybe even sentimentality. However, the message of loss of innocence, the harsh reality of never being able to go back, in the form of the skinny narrator kid diving into a tight underwater cave to pull up a dead body, prevents any lull of comfort from surviving.
Miller's rendering of sex and violence at times wavers into the realm of peeping Tom voyeurism, and one realizes Miller could easily make a living writing for men's magazines if he did not carefully watch himself. Most often Miller's use of sex and violence is skilful and not gratuitous. "Cockfight at Red Gulch" is a particularly successful story in this respect. Cockfighting and sex are combined so that we do not realize until after some moments of having finished the story what the purpose of mechanistic one-breast-only and one-leg-slipped-out-of-panties-only coupling between a "fat cat's" lady and a cockhandler has been. We have experienced the excitement stemming from the artifice of a situation that allows surges of the primeval to filter in. Just as the fighting of the cocks is both an artificial and natural sport, so is the slighty mechanistic-acrobatic coupling between the lady and handler an adrenaline-rush, altered version of civilized mating habits.
The pace of Miller's stories is good; they are not too Crackerish-slow or speeded up as if to please a Yankee market. The war stories, there are three of them, do not really have to be categorized as war stories. To say they are war stories is a bit like insisting Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" should be shelved with the fishing magazines at the newsstand.
Depending on one's temperament, one might criticize Miller for taking the easy way out with the endings of his stories. They often give us a kind of swooning outlook on life, like that of a schoolboy infatuated by a first or second love, or provide what appears to be too neat a punch line. But we know in Miller's world there are several punches, glad and sad, just round the corner, to be encountered again and again by his characters. And Miller's characters keep standing up again and again, which is a good sign.
Another good sign is the last story of the collection, "The Outpost." Its mesh of language and consciousness is the most experimental of the entire book, and the story does not fit neatly into the overall package of "One Man's Junk." The claustrophobic and frenzied feeling conveyed in "The Outpost" offers hope that Miller is right a new border which he soon will cross. After all, the sign of a true artist, his growth, is best measured by the many different ways he attempts during a lifetime to render the world as he and we a re privileged to see it on a good or bad day. Victor Miller can see. On any day.