Only Way I Want It
Riverhead: 224 pp., $25.95
If that pebble rolling around in your shoe were in fact a diamond, it would still cause a blister. And so it is with the stories of Maile Meloy's collection, "Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It." Superbly crafted, these hard little tales wind through the ways people fail to relate to each other and even to themselves -- their central insight being how complicit we are in creating our own misery.
The author of two novels and one other story collection, Meloy has garnered her share of laurels since graduating from UC Irvine's MFA program, not the least of which are the PEN/Malamud Award and a place on the shortlist for the UK's Orange Prize. "Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It" offers yet more evidence of Meloy's fluency as a realist writer, of her Chekhovian resistance to resolving the existential dilemmas posed in her stories and her skill at allowing the perfect bit of dialogue or the telling detail to express all the emotion that otherwise remains inchoate for her characters.
Montana is the setting for several of the 11 stories in this collection, not that it matters much -- its iconic landscape and particular culture seem largely underutilized in most. For instance, the kitchen drama of a wife revealing fears of her husband's infidelity to a supposed friend in "Two Step" could happen just as well in Maine or Oregon or most anywhere else.
The exception is "Travis, B." which opens the collection. Here the vast spaces between anything that can be called civilization speak also to the distance separating social classes, not to mention the distance between men and women. The half-Native American, polio-marred young cowboy in the story spends all his time alone in remote ranch lands, feeding cattle through the long winters. One evening, sick with lonesomeness, the cowboy braves the snow-covered roads to venture into the nearest town. He ends up following a crowd of people he sees outside of a school, which turns out to be an adult education class taught by a pretty female attorney. The cowboy is instantly smitten; yet even his literal riding up on a charger to sweep her off her feet does not a romance make. In compressed, tightly wound prose, Meloy vividly renders each character's yearning, making the half-grasped, fleeting moments of their connection all the more aching.
The collection isn't without its moments of ironic humor -- the sibling rivalry between two brothers in "Spy vs. Spy" is just as funny as it is poignant in their clash over a daughter/niece's loyalty. In "Liliana," the unannounced arrival of a grande dame to her grandson's suburban home is complicated by the fact that she's supposed to be dead. Yet Meloy's richest territory is the fork in the road at right and wrong, the moment when a person's moral compass wavers. A philandering husband in "The Children" articulates it best in a section that also provides the source of the collection's title: "He was doomed to ambivalence and desire. A braver man, or a more cowardly one, would simply flee. A happier or more complacent man would stay and revel in the familiar. . . . There was a poem Meg brought home from college, with the line 'Both ways is the only way I want it.' The force with which he wanted it both ways made him grit his teeth."
Less successful is Meloy's imagining of the unrequited love of an aging Argentine aristocrat in "Agustín." Although filled with biting, pithy observations ("Children were experiments, and his had failed") that are something of a trademark for this author, the story's central character never really materializes as anything more than an elegant Latin gent out of central casting. When he finds an old lover for whom he has yearned in reduced circumstances and offers her the world of riches again, it is no surprise that she spurns him -- thus cementing her poverty and his loneliness. Cue the tango music, please.
That is a rare misstep in otherwise taut, structured storytelling. The reader quickly figures out things won't end well for Meloy's characters but can't anticipate how the card of despair will ultimately be dealt. Nowhere is that more striking than in "The Girlfriend." Leo, the grieving father of a young woman killed by a Missoula lowlife, arranges to meet the girlfriend who testified for the killer at the murder trial. Leo is intent on finding out what happened to his beloved daughter, and why. Unfortunately for his sanity and any chance at future happiness, the girlfriend delivers: "Ignorance had been bad, but it was definitely better than this."
In the best short stories -- by Poe, Raymond Carver, Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor or Alice Munro -- there is always malaise, if not outright heartache, on the horizon. In less able hands this convention turns lugubrious and contrived. But Meloy's lean, targeted descriptions and her ultimately compassionate eye make this journey hurt so good.
Dunn is the author of "Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex, and Salvation."