Imagine for a second an object out of context. A glass eye. A butterfly mounted in a box embossed with Chinese characters. A Cortland apple. A "coiled piece of clothesline rope." A jar full of "soil black as India ink, a spider web of moisture creeping up the inside of the glass."
Each of those objects appears in the new short-story collection from Montpelier author Gary Lee Miller, Museum of the Americas. Each has a potent, near-talismanic significance for a character or characters in one of those stories.
Take the soil: In the book's title story, the narrator runs a "museum" on a run-down Upper Valley farm. His artifacts are jars full of dirt from all over the Americas, hoarded by his deceased, autocratic father:
The Museum of the Americas might be your only chance to see Colorado River silt from the Grand Canyon of Arizona or black gold from the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. People lined up at the Museum door summer after summer.
To you, a jar of dirt might be, well, just a jar of dirt. But to an old Illinois couple that arrives at the Museum of the Americas long past its heyday, one particular jar is much more than that: a chance to make peace with the death of their son, who met his end where the soil originated. The couple begs to buy the soil. The narrator, to whom it represents his father's legacy, won't sell it at any price.
You can't actually see this jar, or any of the totemic objects in Miller's stories — the glass eye that embodies a woman's guilt, the rope still linking an old man to a lost companion, the apple of a boy's lost innocence, the butterfly that represents an addict's elusive hope of recovery. They exist only in the author's imagination. But you can pull out your own totemic objects and bring them to a "museum" that, in accordance with the evanescent power we attach to things, will exist only for a single evening.
It's called the Bear Pond Pop Up Museum, and Bear Pond Books will host it as part of this Friday's Montpelier Art Walk. Conceived as a way to involve the community in celebrating Miller's new book, the "pop-up museum" is a simple affair: Bring "objects of interest or importance to their owners" to the bookstore, fill out a museum card, peruse the community display from 4 to 7 p.m. and pick up your stuff before closing time. "The goal," says a press release, "is to create a sense of the unique people living in, and around, Montpelier."
Helen Labun Jordan, who directs Bear Pond's author events and marketing, says the pop-up museum dovetails with the store's aim to "branch out": "We're trying to do events that engage the audience as participants." The idea came from Miller and happened to "fit in really well with the Montpelier Art Walk," she adds. "We had been looking to participate with something related to books."
A "core group of objects" for the exhibit is already in place, Jordan says. While the objects in Miller's stories are fictional, the author has contributed an assemblage of items thematically or tangentially linked to his narratives, including photos of his parents and ex-girlfriend, a tuba "dug from the mud of the Allegheny River" (according to Miller's label), and a "giant display toothbrush ... taken from the author's large collection of vintage toothbrushes."
Jordan's own contributions to the museum include "cookbooks from my mother's extensive cookbook collection," she says, "including 1939 and 1951 editions of [the classic crowdsourced collection] Out of Vermont Kitchens." She's also bringing in the skull of a rock dassie, "a rodentlike animal that lives in South Africa, in the cliffs," and "looks like a cross between a groundhog and a mouse" but is actually genetically linked to elephants.
In other words, who says "show and tell" is just for kids?
We've all got objects with powerful stories — some of which Bear Pond will display on Friday. But Miller, a frequent contributor to Seven Days' music section, tells such stories more powerfully than most. The holder of an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he's already published some of these shorts in journals such as Vermont's Hunger Mountain and Green Mountains Review, as well as in the Chicago Quarterly Review, Washington Square and other publications.
If MFA grads' stories are sometimes accused of a certain airless sameness, Miller's defy any such pattern. While his style is always highly polished, his subjects and tones range all over the map. Among his protagonists are a hard-drinking minor-league mascot, a teenage fortune teller, children learning the world's tough truths, a suburban soccer mom and an aged Canadian magician with a big secret: He killed Houdini.
The stories' settings range from the Great Depression to midcentury to the present. A couple are essentially haunting vignettes, such as "Melting," a time-lapse view of a motor lodge bypassed by the interstate, whose heroine is introduced thus: "She couldn't hear and couldn't speak and her auburn hair held thick about her white shoulders like wind-twisted curtains of cloudburst rain."
Most of the stories, though, are sustained narratives powered by deftly established conflicts. If Miller occasionally gives those conflicts a heavy-handed resolution — for instance, in "Lucky Duck, Lucky Luck," a story about bullying and its aftermath — he generally keeps his effects subtle enough to surprise us into emotion. I defy any animal lover not to tear up while reading "Winter," in which an elderly farmer contemplates the illness of his beloved hunting dog in unvarnished terms: "There was nothing left for her but suffering, and it was time for that to end."
Each of these stories ushers us into a new, fully imagined world, as redolent of elsewhere as the soil samples in the Museum of the Americas, and Miller evokes those elsewheres with sharp observation and colloquial ease. A tour of the motley assemblage in the Bear Pond Pop Up Museum might be just the right gateway to the author's museum of American misfits, oddities and dreams. With this collection, he opens his cabinet of curiosities to us.
Bear Pond Pop Up Museum, Friday, August 1, 4 to 7 p.m., at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier. Gary Lee Miller reads in the store's Children's Room at 7 p.m. To contribute objects to the museum, drop them off at the store after 10 a.m. on Friday and pick them up after 7 p.m. bearpondbooks.com
Museum of the Americas by Gary Lee Miller, Fomite Press, 191 pages. $14.95.
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.