Rev: Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It: Stories

Issue #110
Winter 2009-10

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It: Stories, by Maile Meloy (Riverhead): The characters of Maile Meloy’s excellent new collection vary widely, from a ranch hand in Meloy’s native Montana to a construction worker at a nuclear power plant to a wealthy aristocrat in Argentina. But almost all of them cohere to the theme suggested by the book’s title, taken from a poem by A. R. Ammons: “One can’t / have it // both ways / and both // ways is / the only // way I / want it.”

The book is full of characters who want it both ways: a man torn between his wife and young mistress; a teenage girl who invites and repels the advances of an older man during a rafting trip with her father; a twenty-three-year-old construction worker who wants to stop his dead buddy’s girlfriend from raffling her body for cash but at the same time wants to take advantage of her offer. One of Meloy’s achievements is to dramatize these states of limbo, to make us empathize with characters torn and isolated by opposing, often morally questionable desires. They are good people who, baffled by their own impulses, don’t want to destroy the lives around them.

In “The Children,” a middle-aged man is waiting for the right moment to tell his “eminently intelligent” wife, Raye, that he’s leaving her for a much younger woman—their grown children’s old swimming instructor. But when, near the end of the story, the man, Fielding, and his wife sit together on lawn chairs outside their lake house, he feels himself settle “back into the habit of their marriage” and “his wife’s expert hands.” Raye suspects something is the matter and all but asks Fielding if he’s going to leave her, but instead of taking advantage of this opportunity to broach the subject, Fielding says, “I’m not going anywhere.”

“He was doomed to ambivalence and desire,” Meloy writes. And remembering a poem his daughter brought home from college once— the Ammons poem—Fielding thinks, “What kind of fool wanted it only one way?”

With this book, Meloy, author of the novels Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter, returns to the story form for the first time since her acclaimed debut, Half in Love. It should go a long way toward establishing her as a master of modern-day realism. Her stories are little gems of narrative economy, clarity, telling detail, and dead-on observation. “He had the intelligence that physically beautiful people have, because other people confide in them,” she writes in “Two-Step,” describing a handsome, charismatic doctor who is having an affair with a friend of his wife. In “Travis, B.,” a man with a bum hip and a steel rod in his leg walks “as though he were turning to himself to ask a question.”

Meloy’s writing is spare, but at the same time the prose has a storyteller’s fluidity and seeming effortlessness. There are no linguistic pyrotechnics here, no formal inventions or girls who have been raised by wolves. Which is not to say that her stories lack surprise and mystery—they exist in abundance—but the surprises and mysteries arise out of pitch-perfect characterizations of flesh-and-blood characters, in all their contradictions and inscrutability.

The firstand possibly beststoryis “Travis,B.,”in which a youngranch hand, Chet—the man with the bum hip—meets a young woman who is teaching an adult-ed class on school law at the local high school in Glen-dive, Montana. Chet wanders into the class to fend off a nagging loneliness, “something dangerous that would break free if he kept so much alone.” The teacher, Beth Travis, lives in Missoula, six hundred miles away, and has to make the drive to Glendive twice a week. She has taken the job out of fear about paying her school loans, but since taking it she has found a better position at a law firm in Missoula, and the commute is killing her. “I’ve never done anything so stupid in my life,” she says.

For Chet, the class, and the chance to talk to Beth, is the one bright spot in his life; for Beth, it’s pure misery. The story’s conflict is classic and simple, but Meloy takes it in unexpected directions. To impress Beth, Chet goes to the second meeting of the class on horseback instead of in his truck,“awarethathe couldseemlikeafool,butelatedwiththefeeling of sitting a horse as well as anyone did.” And when she fails to appear at the fourth class, having found someone else to teach it, Chet walks out, gets in his truck, and starts on the nine-and-a-half-hour drive to Missoula, without knowing Beth’s telephone number or address.

Despite the character’s torments, the overall impression of the book is of brightness and a kind of optimism, and that’s part of what makes it so wonderful. Meloy adheres to the classic Chekhovian ideal of empathy for characters good or bad, foolish or wise, high and low. She writes with a soft touch and equanimity. The very fact of the characters’ conflicting desires becomes life-affirming in a way—not so much a state of happiness as intensity of experience. In the last story, “O Tannenbaum,” a man who long ago cheated on his wife and has since dedicated himself to being a good husband and father ends up, by the end of the story, in another compromising position with “the kind of blonde who held sorority car washes.” He felt, Meloy writes, “both the threat of disorder and the steady, thrumming promise of having everything he wanted, all at once.” We suspect it will end badly, but Meloy focuses our attention on the fleeting moment when everything seems possible. —Chip Cheek’s stories have appeared in Washington Square, Night Train, Minnetonka Review, Quick Fiction, and Fringe, among other places. He currently teaches writing at Grub Street in Boston.