Always Happy Hour
By Mary Miller
243 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Martha Sheridan

nolead ends For the women in Always Happy Hour, it seems it's always time for some discount drinks. Mississippi native and former Michener Fellow Mary Miller sets several of her stories in central Texas, including Austin and Round Rock. The stories have a Southern flavor that deliver on the publisher's promise of a book with savage Southern charm and hard-edged prose.

But don't expect a lot of charm from strong women with a sense of humor. Instead, it can be a bit of a slog to sort through the stories of women in modern relationships that leave them dead inside.

The women keep constant vigil over their weight while beer, pot, and pills undermine their health. Their sexual experiences are often more about humiliation than pleasure. The characters have a special knack for choosing men who are bad news and for digging a deeper ditch for themselves while the hours of young adulthood tick away.

In the title story, Alice is dating Richie, who has a son. Alice can't quite adjust to not being able to curse or kiss her boyfriend when the child is around, and thinks, "I'm supposed to pretend like he is the most important thing because he's a child." Richie and Alice also appear in "At One Time This Was the Longest Covered Walkway in the World," in which Alice fears that Richie will end the relationship. When he does, Alice thinks, he will "be leaving the girl you thought I was, who was kind of like me, but not." Instead of doing the emotional work to find herself, she wonders how she can change to keep him.

In "Where All of the Beautiful People Go," in which a woman visits a friend whose mother died six days earlier. As the young women float in a swimming pool, the narrator thinks, "I could do better, it's completely within my ability, and Aggie could do better, but we allow ourselves to neglect the most important things as we tell ourselves we're doing our best. I open my mouth and close it, decide to keep this information to myself."

As difficult as it is to like many of the characters, Miller casts light on the lives of young women facing life's pivot points. Such moments and decisions can seem overwhelming, and you don't have the perspective to realize that later, these will be remembered as the glory days.

The best literature illuminates the human condition and provokes contemplation. Miller puts readers inside the experiences of these women, has us stand in their socks, make their mistakes, and survive.

This review originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.