I was a bit worried about reading Marietta Miles’ new book May because if you have followed me on social media or have read this blog in the past, you will know that I am a huge fan of Miles first book Route 12 which a collection of two novellas that I know is one of the best books written in several years. There was no way Miles would be able to live up to the standard she set in Route 12 with May, that just doesn’t happen. Right?
I even got an advance reader copy back in October and I still hadn’t read it. I was a coward. I asked around to some folks who had read May and all I heard was praise for the new book. I put the e-ARC aside and ordered myself a paperback. Hell, I’m a fan of Miles’ writing calling Route 12 “devastatingly remarkable” and I love to lend out books from small presses to friends who aren’t there yet.
The good news is that Marietta Miles did not disappoint with May. Her writing is mesmerizing and lyrical. We are drawn in even as the most horrendous things are happening to her characters. May opens in 1987 on Folly Island, a fictional barrier island on the North Carolina coast. She is in line at a small convenience store and a drunk boy in front of her counts out his change to by a packet of smokes. There is something about this boy, his attitude and the way he carries himself, that alarms her.
Outside, the kid stands next to the bed of her truck, his back to her. The screen door falls shut and he looks behind, shaking his hips and zipping up his pants. May stays put, hoping he doesn’t see her.
The drunken boy jumps in his Trans Am and pulls loudly out of the parking lot.
She heads off in the same direction as the Trans Am, turns on the radio. Folly only pulls in two stations, one is country and one is oldies. Neither is very good, too much talk, but it doesn’t matter. Anything’ll do, she just wants to hear something other than her own thoughts.
The next chapter, Marietta Miles takes us back to 1970 in Shreveport during May’s senior year in high school. She lusts after Ben Parish and he lusts right back. But both May and Ben are military brats and, as so often happens, the teenagers are soon separated by forces greater than themselves. Inevitably, one forgets about the other.
Miles alternates the chapters of the book between 1987 and 1970 with the earlier years getting the greatest play. Eventually, May is sent away from her family to live with an aunt in Dare County, North Carolina. With all of the issues in May’s life, it is this event of her father sending her away and her mother not fighting to keep her that stays with May throughout her life.
Marietta Miles describes the May’s melancholy without getting maudlin. In one of the 1987 chapters, May is alone in her house as the storm approaches.
Feeling bored more than drowsy, she turns on the lamp, picks up the paperback, yellowed and dog-eared, from her nightstand, reading to make herself sleepy. Page after page and still she waits for the wash of sleep to roll over her. Her eyes drift from the words. She’s afraid, afraid she’ll stay awake all night.
It is a thought that almost brings her to tears. In the middle of the night, alone, and unable to quiet her mind she feels like she is the last person in the world.
While the minutes tick away and the night claws forward, anxiety creeps upon her. The words on the page can’t hold her attention; they run circles around her brain. She hears the humming of the fridge through the paper-thin walls and the ticking of the kitchen clock. The night moves in slow motion.
Miles’ characters are lonely, but not alone. There is something that separates them from making connections with other people whether we are reading Route 12 with Teresa and Percy or the three main characters in her latest book: May, Tommy, and Junior. If you are looking for a crime novel, this isn’t for you. If you appreciate great writing and wonderful storytelling, Marietta Miles’ May is the book you will want to read. My reservations about reading May turned out to be unfounded as Miles is just getting better and better. Her books may be short in pages, the depths we travel in Marietta Miles words are endless.
Before I sign off, can we talk about that cover, that god-awful cover May is stuck with? A book this excellent deserves a cover equally as compelling. I believe the current cover is doing a disservice to Miles and her book as a cover is supposed to appeal, to repel.