Along for the Ride: At the Waffle House with Mary Miller

WaffleHouseThe table at which I wait for Mary Miller in a Waffle House off US-183 in Austin is disappointingly well-kept. It’s my first experience with a Waffle House, so I expected and hoped for a table with spilled sugar crystals, the surface sticky with syrup. That the table has been recently wiped clean is briefly, marginally disappointing, and I feel slightly robbed of the desired authenticity. What I believe is the authentic Waffle House experience is how Mary Miller depicts it in the first few pages of her tremendous and big-hearted debut novel, The Last Days of California, out January 20th from Liveright, an imprint of W.W. Norton. The novel, which finds a remarkable and unforgettable narrator in fifteen-year-old Jess and contains more brilliant insight and turns of phrase than you can shake a stick at, charts the Metcalf family’s four-day sojourn toward The Golden State to meet the possibly-impending Rapture.

Mary meets me in the restaurant’s tucked-away corner, one booth past a family with two young girls donning Waffle House caps. I tell Mary we should ask for hats of our own and take several pictures in them but she is not as enthused by this prospect as I am and so it does not happen. [Later, I will contemplate purchasing a Waffle House hat from their website for $18.00 plus shipping and handling and ultimately decide against it.] Mary has agreed to meet me for four days in a row—Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, as her novel is chaptered—in locations culled from or inspired by the book. “We have to start at Waffle House,” I told her, and she was in. [It would quickly become apparent that, though this was a well-intentioned and somewhat clever idea on my part, Mary Miller and I were simultaneously too tired, too busy, or too hungover to sustain such a demanding vision. We met twice.]

Because I’m a firm believer in the idea that if a restaurant’s name is comprised of its primary offering you should order that and only that off the menu, I request two plain waffles. [This doctrine is very much informed by my once making the mistake of ordering salmon at The Cheesecake Factory.] Mary is more adventurous, orders grilled cheese with a side of hash browns.

“You really smother yours,” Mary says, pointing to my waffles.

“With syrup?” I say, and thus ensues a back-and-forth over the proper pronunciation of syrup, a battle settled by our waitress who sides with Mary’s sir-up and has no truck with my seer-up bullshit.

My waffles are perfectly edible. Mary’s grilled cheese is “pretty delicious, and has a shitload of butter on it.” She tells me about a time she went to a Waffle House when she was younger and asked if the mushrooms were canned or fresh, though she knew the answer already. “I was feeling particularly snobby that day,” she says. It’s the kind of thing I can hear Elise—Jess’s older, more precocious sister—asking in the novel. Though there is no doubt that the novel belongs to Jess, capturing so deftly her fraught but buoyant interior, her sister Elise is equally compelling and terribly recognizable. The dynamic between the sisters—their differences and their overlap—stands out as one of the novel’s great achievements. Mary writes a lot about sisters, and in so doing, she captures something about the relationship between siblings that informs with such nuance my textbook-only-child’s understanding of a life where you have to share clothes and toys and friends and parental attention and, sometimes, blame. Mary has a sister of her own—a registered nurse and songwriter—who she is very close to, who she says appreciates her portrayal of the complicated bond between sisters.

Mary grew up a fundamentalist Roman Catholic in Mississippi, where the show of religion is as ingrained as going to the grocery store, and I joke that that’s the exact description of a person I don’t want to meet. Luckily, she bucks the bevy of stereotypes that such a description connote, and also steers clear of them in her novel if she’s not turning them on their head. We discuss our experiences with Catholic school, nun principals, face-to-face vs. annex confession. (She preferred face-to-face; I tell her that even though my sins were sized-to-scale for a ten-year-old, I couldn’t admit them and simultaneously make eye contact.) I tell her I’ve lost my faith and she tells me she hasn’t, though she’s not a practicing anything. She attended church sporadically in college, was even married in one, and often contemplates but does not follow through on locating a church here in Austin. It’s not a predominant part of her life, she says, but one of occasional and well-meaning spiritual inquiry.

It’s with this background, then, that a not-practicing-anything Mary Miller had the idea for the novel, after reading a newspaper excerpt about a family road-tripping under the guidance of failed prophet Harold Camping in May of 2011. “I was so curious about it,” she says. “I kept thinking: why would anyone do this?” I note that her interest in the story lacks the tone of judgement that a godless heathen like myself might bring to it, and posit that maybe this is why the novel works so beautifully: it is the product of unbiased and genuine curiosity, and it treats its characters and their beliefs and disbeliefs with respect. The writer tasked with this story who believes that all religion is a cognitive way to compartmentalize the chaos of their own lives—and I do believe this is many a writer, myself included—would surely write it as a mockery, a send-up, but Mary has written the more interesting novel which, instead of soliciting easy laughter, chooses to examine the genesis and the implications of a human circumstance profoundly different than her own. Which, I think, is the work of fiction writers.

Our conversation about the Rapture understandably veers toward Doomsday Preppers. “I think that’s just a different way to be unhinged,” Mary says, after I finish a five-minute rant about how I think it’s the height of arrogance to assume you know when the world’s going to end any better than I do. “I think we’re all unhinged,” she says, “and that’s just another way for them to put their energy and obsessiveness into something. Some of us sit at night and eat bags of chips and cookies, others chain smoke, others shop online and spend their last dime—most people have some sort of obsessive tendency, and it’s just how they funnel it.” It’s such a well-made argument that I almost have sympathy for them.

It’s that obsession, that being unhinged, which characterizes Jess’s father in the novel. The trip is his idea, with everyone else going along more or less without vocalized protest; if anyone believes it will end in an ending, it’s him, though Mary and I discuss that perhaps even he doesn’t truly believe the prophecy. “It’s all about control,” she says. “This father, he’s so out of control that, if he can just give it to God, so to speak, he doesn’t have to be responsible so much. He’s started drinking, he’s got a gambling addiction, he’s lost his job—but he can just put that in God’s hands.” The apocalypse can be attractive to a person like that, I think. I ask her if she perceives that choice, that giving it up to the Lord, to be the product of human weakness, and she says instead that it’s a product of hopelessness. “We all have to figure out what to do with our desperation,” she says, perfectly stating what I think is the other work of fiction writers. This comment serves as a nice explanation, too, for some of my questions about the mother of the novel, who is so capitulant, so forbearing and painfully willing. You get the sense early on that she doesn’t share her husband’s passion in the slightest; that she knows the trip is a cover-up of sorts, a way to escape from their life in Alabama by hanging it heavy on a spiritual hook. “She’s white-knuckling it for sure,” Mary says. “But there’s not much she can do but go along for the ride.” The same is true for Elise, our narrator’s sister and the novel’s loudest doubting Thomas, who takes the form of a precocious and pregnant teenager. Though she makes it patently obvious that she finds the family’s religiosity silly, she is still a passenger, like her mother and sister, in her father’s evangelical expedition.

But the character I want to talk about most is our narrator, Jess, the literary soul sister of Angela Chase, Homeland’s Dana Brody, and Saved!’s Hilary Faye. I confess to Mary that I saw so much of myself in Jess; how often I cringed with recognition from page to page as I was reminded so vividly of the particular soul-stinging of teenagerdom. An essentially informing detail about Jess, at least in my reading, is that, when she’s in the bathroom, she tries to mute her pee. Something so small like that, mentioned only in passing, says so much, and it’s evidence that that old MFA less-is-more rule is, more often than not, accurate. Jess is preoccupied with her changing identity—as a girl, as a member of her family, a member of her faith, a member of the world at large. [I’m reminded by a character in Joy Williams’s The Quick and the Dead, who wonders, “That was life, was it not? A fact-finding tour?”] Finding Jess at this time in her life allows Mary to deliver some exceptional lines that only the perspicacity of being fifteen could allow. Lines like, “The secret to a lot of things was to forget, but I was always remembering.” Lines like, “It wasn’t that I didn’t care about people. It was more like I couldn’t really believe they were real.” Lines like these are bound to be highlighted by many a reader, exclamation-pointed for their universality and perfect packaging, and Jess will stay with the reader long after the novel ends.

lastdays_select.inddRegarding the ending, which will go unspoiled here, and the novel at large, Miller says she has no expectations that it will be for everyone. “I think I came to terms long ago with the fact that not a whole lot of people are going to like my work in general,” Mary says. “It’s not going to be plot-driven, it’s not going to give you the ending you want, and a lot of people that are gonna pick it up aren’t gonna like it.” She says has already received some unfavorable Goodreads reviews, and I tell her how antithetical my response was to those criticisms, and to Mary’s stellar writing. The Last Days of California is that rare book that manages to invite a broad readership—accessible enough to be enjoyed by young adults, yet existentially inquisitive in ways that would give any enthusiast of literary fiction plenty to chew on—without sacrificing its allegiance to language or character or story. Having read it twice, what I feel confident about is this: in the hands of an open-minded, intellectually and emotionally curious person—which, why are you picking up a novel in the first place if you aren’t both of those things?—Mary Miller’s debut novel will move, will impress, will leave even some small part of the reader rearranged, in the way that her four characters are becoming decisively different over the course of this novel.

Vincent Scarpa is a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Baltimore Review, and Plain China: Best of Undergraduate Writing. He is the 2012 recipient of the Norman Mailer College Fiction Award.

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