Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy
One of the joys of blogging is that it makes you part of a community of other bloggers. That’s good for a number of reasons not least of which is the opportunity to talk about books with like minded people. Another one of those reasons is that sometimes it exposes you to books you might otherwise have passed by.
There’s no way on my own I’d have read Maile Meloy’s short story collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It. Starkly written tales of quiet emotional desperation set in the American mid-West? That’s not my territory. I leave it to others better suited.
Sometimes though it’s good to read outside one’s normal range. Sometimes it’s good to be challenged. When both Kevin of kevinfromcanada and Trevor from themookseandthegripes praised Meloy as one of the finest writers they’d read in a fair while I had to pay attention. Unsurprisingly they were right. This is a largely excellent short story collection.
I talked above about challenge. The truth though is that this isn’t remotely a challenging read (particularly when compared to writers like Pynchon, Quin or Burn). Meloy writes prose that slips down with deceptive ease. Her stories are like cocktails where you can’t taste the alcohol. They’re smooth drinking but there’s a kick at the end.
Isn’t that a dreadful cover by the way? It makes it look like a life affirming beach read. Ugh. It hugely frustrates me how so many women writers are packaged as light entertainment regardless of their content. I wonder how many great books I’ve missed out on because they were marketed as chicklit. The US cover which you can see at Kevin or Trevor’s is vastly more apposite with its stark imagery of ice and night.
Anyway. There are eleven stories in this collection. Each is quietly and unshowily written. By and large they deal in the gulfs between people. Sometimes as in Travis, B these gulfs are physical. A young man falls in love with a teacher who takes an evening class which he attends on a bored whim. Montana is a big state though and she took the job from desperation. She has a nine hour drive each way to get there.
The problem he has isn’t just one of mileage. They’re separated by class and education too. His loneliness is like a hunger, and Meloy makes it a physical pain. I could taste his yearning. Trevor has some choice quotes from this story in his review so I won’t repeat them here but it’s excellent.
It’s a compliment to the collection to say that wasn’t my favourite tale. I’ll come back to which one was.
In Red from Green a girl goes on a camping trip with her father, her uncle and a client of her uncle’s new law firm. That client is the plaintiff in a lucrative class action lawsuit – a suit that will likely collapse if he pulls out of it.
The client shows an interest in the girl despite her being really a bit too young for that to be appropriate. Her father seems to let it slide, just as he lets slide various breaches of hunting etiquette. Just how far is the father prepared to let things go to keep this guy happy?
In Two Step a woman, Naomi, visits her best friend Alice and finds her distraught and believing her husband is cheating on her. Alice is right. Naomi knows that because she’s the one he’s cheating with. While she and Alice talk he arrives home…
In The Children a man is having an affair with the girl who used to teach all the neighbourhood kids how to swim. She’s young (compared to him anyway) and uncomplicated and vulnerable. His wife is smart and tough. Smarter and tougher than he is. He talks to another local girl with whom he nearly had an affair.
“You’re leaving Raye,” Jennie said.
He felt a surge of adrenaline, and steadied himself on the closet door. “Does it show?” he asked.
Jennie smiled. “I’ve known you since I was born,” she said. “You think that means you know me inside out, but really it means I know you.”
He thought of correcting her: he had known her before she was born. He;d watched her mother, hugely pregnant and happy, floating in the lake with her belly at the surface. Her father so proud you’d think no one had ever knocked up a pretty girl before. The two families had done everything together, before Jennie’s began to disintegrate. Jennie was his daughter’s age, two years younger than his son, and he remembered her at six in just a bikini bottom, darting in and out of the water. Or bundled in a snowsuit in winter, riding a plastic sled on her stomach across the ice. She was twelve when the marriage finally ended, and her father had sung drunkenly, here in the lake-house kitchen, “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, don’t make a pretty woman your wife,” and then cried over what the divorce might do to Jennie.
He’s caught between them all. Between the safety of home and a wife who does still love him. Between the escape of a younger woman and the fantasy of the life he had when he was younger. He wants it both ways. As he bitterly reflects: “What kind of fool wanted it only one way?”
That question was answered earlier of course in Travis, B. There’s plenty of folk here would be fine with it one way. There’s plenty too who want it both though.
Meloy has a knack for the simple yet telling sentence. Lines like “Children were experiments, and his had failed.” have an almost visceral punch. I loved too “She was so young and untroubled by guilt, she could tell everything and be forgiven.” It’s a line I understand better than I would wish to.
In a sense of course that’s what this kind of fiction is often about. That beautifully crafted sentence on which a story turns. It’s a style of writing that tends not to appeal to me because it can often become technique over content. What I think takes this higher than mere form though is a knack Meloy shows for putting discomfort on the page.
Several stories feature encounters between young women and old men. There’s that daughter with the important legal client I mentioned above. There’s a man talking to the youthful girlfriend of his own daughter’s murderer. There’s the man in The Children pursued by a friend’s daughter and pursuing in turn his own children’s former swim teacher. In each of these the situation is awkward, but who it is awkard for varies.
Not everything is perfect. Spy vs. Spy, a tale of two warring brothers, I found obvious and even trite. The otherwise polished story Liliana contains a massive infodump detailing who the narrator’s grandmother was. It’s needed because she turns up at his door after her funeral, not dead after all. It’s still pretty blatant though and sticks out in a collection which is otherwise so polished. By contrast this is as clean a piece of writing as I could wish for:
Jennie Taylor sat at the kitchen table with her legs crossed, in jeans and a sweater. Her dark hair was brushed straight and smooth. Fresh air and her mother’s looks had served her well.
Unusually for me I spaced these stories out over a period of weeks. The benefit of that is that I gave each one space to breathe – something I often fail to do with short stories. Being absolutely honest when I came to write this piece up I found that I didn’t actually remember all of them. Some I had to reopen to recognise. Not every story is as good as the next. That said, different readers could easily differ as to which were best.
In the end this collection to me was about the quote I’ve used to title this review – ambivalence and desire. With its quiet desperation and middle class angst this is classic literary fiction territory. Thankfully it’s good though, and in the end that’s all that really matters.
Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It. If you’re curious, The Children was my favourite.