He was doomed to ambivalence and desire.

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.

Kevin’s review is here. Trevor’s is here. I strongly recommend both.

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It. If you’re curious, The Children was my favourite.


Filed under Meloy, Maile, Short stories

26 responses to “He was doomed to ambivalence and desire.

  1. leroyhunter

    It’s a terrible cover. I *refuse* to buy that edition. The US is available on Book Depository.

    I had this down as a cert to get after Trevor & Kevin’s reviews. I suppose when you state it so baldly then, yes, this is exactly the type of middle-class, writer’s workshop stuff we discussed (not totally favourably) a while back. Hmmm. Not so sure now.

  2. RichardKovitch

    Great stuff Max – and might I say I’m with u re the cover. I know they say don’t judge a book by its cover but I think it has an effect. Similarly, I must confess to my heart sinking only this week when I asked after a Science book only to discover it was actually in the Self-Help section. Immediate reservations poured forth! Shallow? Quite possibly.

  3. I read it on my Kindle so the cover wasn’t a big issue thankfully. Absolutely horrid.

    To be honest I’m too vain to read a book with that cover openly in public. I care too much what people I’ll never know might think. I shouldn’t, but it remains the rather shallow truth.

    It is exactly that Leroy. It’s good though, and the thing is plenty of those writers are (I don’t know if Meloy was a workshop writer, quite possibly not). My issue isn’t with any given writer, it’s with the trend. Really it’s much more an issue for me with conservatism in publishing than with what a particular writer chooses to write. Meloy didn’t bore me which is my objection to much of that kind of fiction.

    I do still want to see though more Pynchon, Quin, Burn (not precisely them since two of them are dead, but that sort of thing).

    Richard, my heart would sink too at being sent into the self-help section. Again, I wouldn’t want to be seen in it and frankly if it’s there it doesn’t reflect well on it.

    Sometimes though books are filed oddly. I once came across The Beauty Myth filed helpfully in the Health and Beauty section.

    The cover has a clear marketing intent. It says in effect that the book isn’t for men. That annoys me because it is for men as much as anyone else and this kind of approach limit its potential readership. I actually think it’s quite misleading given the nature of the content too as it’s not nearly as happy and shiny as that suggests.

  4. Excellent post. I read this a couple weeks ago myself and had awful trouble writing about it, but you’ve captured many of my thoughts.

    “The Children” wasn’t my favorite, but I found it growing on me unexpectedly as I read. I just never got over how much I loved “Travis, B.” Nothing else had a chance.

  5. Max: I have a friend who covers Hard Case Crime books with fake covers because of the gloriously tacky pictures.

  6. But the Hard Case covers are glorious, lurid genius!

    It seems that ‘Travis B.’ may be most’s favourite, it’s certainly mine. It’s surely one of the best short stories I’ve read in a while, and should go in any collected stories anthology that would permit its inclusion. Meloy was a huge surprise for me, and when you consider the book opens with that tale…

  7. Though I’m now going to re-read The Children. What a chore…

  8. leroyhunter

    I’m with you on public-cover-vanity, at least in this case.
    Now you mention it, this is a perfect example of the kind of thing a Kindle would be good for. Now if Amazon (or whoever) came up with a model that allowed you to but individual stories (like tracks from an album), that would be perfect.

    I agree with you about wanting to see more of the uncategorisable, genuinely offbeat or original stuff coming through. Is there an avenue for it now though? Small presses seems the best option to be honest, I’m not aware despite much trumpeting of anyone making a go of it on an internet-only basis. You’re dead right about the problem being publishers, not authors per se.

  9. Fascinating review Max … and I love your comment about covers for women writers. I suspect you probably have because I’ve seen covers like that and been put off.

    I read Liliana (and blogged about it) at The New Yorker. My first recollection as I recollect was, as I wrote in my blog, “fun but flimsy” but then it kept coming back to me. That was 18mths ago, and I can’t recollect the “infodump” you are talking about but maybe that’s what put me off initially. Anyhow, it intrigued me enough to make me want to read more or her (but I haven’t yet).

  10. Thanks for the link, Max, and the reminders about this collection. There is an icy precision to Meloy’s prose that I have rarely found, which is why I appreciate this group so well. The writing is not fancy, it is just damn good.

    Like you, I had to return to some stories when it came time to put together a review. And — just as happens with J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories (still my favorite collection, but this one is close) — one paragraph in and I was fully engaged in the entire story. I might not carry it in conscious memory, but it does not take much of a reminder.

    I do think you Brits have been scourged with a truly terrible cover — it doesn’t play to any of the stories, while the NA one does. And, just to whet your taste a bit, I have read Liars and Saints and it is every bit as good as this short story collection. I know you are on a buying embargo, but keep an eye out for it — and watch even closer for A Family Daughter, Meloy’s other novel which now seems to be out of print — although I don’t think that will last that long.

  11. Lee: I agree. The Hard Case Crime covers are fantastic. BTW HHC will be back this autumn with several new titles (and covers)

  12. Thanks Nicole. Travis, B is exceptional. I loved the subtlety of The Children and the portrayal of the wife. Also, it’s not easy to make a man in his situation at all sympathetic, and yet Meloy makes everyone in that story at least a little sympathetic. Perhaps understandable is a better word.

    Guy/Lee, Hard Case Crime covers are superb. I utterly adore them.

    WG, I can see flimsy but some have a way of staying with you that I thought impressive. Liliana is I think a very good short story, but it’s far from the best here. It is worth seeking out the collection.

    Kevin, two things there. Icy precision and the writing not being fancy, just damn good. Spot on.

    When I returned to the stories I’d forgotten O Tannenbaum! but within moments I was hooked by it and it came back to vivid life. I’ll keep an eye out for the others on Kindle. I suspect future UK covers will follow this format.

  13. Leroy,

    I look to the smaller press too. I don’t think the internet route is an easy one, certainly not easier than the small press route. How do you get heard online? How do you attract attention? How do you differentiate your work from a myriad others?

    Some authors do manage that and I salute them for it, but it’s a tough road. I suspect most writers would be better off finding a small press outfit that believed in their work and going from there.

    In a curious way I’m not sure the internet has actually made much difference at the offbeat end of the scale. I suspect a new Stephen King would find it easier to make it online than a new Ann Quin. There’s an existing online demand for genre stuff, but for challenging literary I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.

  14. A very useful review with plenty of detail. There have been quite a few American short-story writers with that sort of angle on things (names escape me, but perhaps Eudora Welty?). I get the impression she comes at things sideways rather than full -on, a technique I always find beguiling

  15. The appearance of covers is important to me, too! I’ve just written down this title and will look for it. I tend to space short stories out over time, too — unless it is one of those collections where they are all intertwined (such as Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout).

  16. Tom, Valerie, sorry for the slow reply. She does come at things sideways which is nice. There’s an ambiguity to a lot of the stories which I found rather attractive. Often it’s more an ambiguity of motive than incident. It’s fairly clear what happens, but what it means and why it happens is perhaps less obvious.

    This was the first time I’d really managed to space stories out, though I managed it with the Parker later. It does help, though similarly I still wouldn’t do it where they are intertwined (Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay is another example of that).

  17. Pingback: 2011: That was the year that was | Pechorin’s Journal

  18. I came across her novels in an apartment we rented in Dublin. We’d gone there a couple of years ago to celebrate Bloomsday. The apartment, while fine for us, was far from upmarket. I delighted in her writing and later shared bought copies with friends, more appreciation.
    I went on to buy and read her first(?) YA novel – so DIRE it made me angry. Now I’m tempted by your review to try her again, so thank you.
    She’s the sister of Colin Meloy of the great Decembrists. I investigated her roots to find out if she was Irish as Maile read Celtish/Gaelic to me , turns out she made it up, I can’t recall the reason but not for Irish linked reasons.

  19. I was wondering where Maile came from, I assumed it was probably Irish too. Interesting.

    Didn’t know she’d written a YA novel, but I do know now to avoid it so thanks!

  20. It’s become a series so someone likes it! She set the first one in London and in the road I live in so naturally my teeth were on edge when her description just didn’t fit. Why use an actual location then? And while we live in easy strolling distance from Regents Park and the West End you cannot nip down to the Thames and certainly not to Chelsea Physic Garden as her characters do – immediate suspension of disbelief.

  21. Just following on from our previous conversation on Twitter…

    Thanks so much for alerting me to this review, Max. I’ve actually ordered a copy of it now although I might have to cover that sleeve with wrapping paper as a way of hiding the dreadful image on the front. Isn’t it just awful?

    ‘Travis, B’ sounds like the source material for the third of the stories in the film adaptation, my favourite of the three. Interestingly though, the director Kelly Reichardt (also who wrote the screenplay for the movie) has changed the character’s gender, such that story features a young female ranch hand who falls for a teacher (also female) she encounters during an evening class one night. It’s a beautiful story, subtle and moving in its depiction of the interaction between these two characters. The girl who plays the ranch hand is exceptional in this – a relative unknown Native American actor, Lily Gladstone.

    I can relate to what you say about Meloy’s stories being centred on the gulfs between people. What struck me about the film was the sense of isolation and loneliness several of these women feel even when in the company of others. Anyway, great review as ever. I’m looking forward to reading the stories.

  22. I think I missed carols44’s reply back in 2015. The use of locations does sound irritating.

    Jacqui, thanks for the comment. Old reviews rarely get much love do they? The cover is grim. It bears no link to the contents.

    Interesting they make Travis female in the film. I can see it could work, execution is everything, in the story I think Meloy captures a kind of lonely longing that fitted her character well but I’m sure many have felt regardless of gender.

    They are lonely stories, but rather lovely too.

  23. I know! It’s so nice to receive a comment on an archive review; I love it when that happens. And it was a bonus for me to discover that you had reviewed this book, especially given the connection to Certain Women.

    It is an interesting decision to change the character’s gender, and I’m curious to see how the original story compares to my impressions of the film. Lily Gladstone captures that sense of longing and yearning so perfectly. I hope you get a chance to see CW when it’s released, I’d love to hear what you think. Anyway, I’ve got a couple of more days at the London Film Fest to look forward to, so I’ll be back in proper circulation at some point next week. By the way, did you know that the BFI has a series of French noir screenings coming up? It looks very tempting…


  24. I’d love to see them, but time is in very much short supply at the moment sadly. I’m barely getting to read let alone catch movies. So it goes sometimes.

  25. That doesn’t sound good. I hope you’re okay…

  26. Yes, but work has been intense and we’ve had an illness in the family which is hopefully improving. It’s meant not much time to read or comment on stuff or do much. It’ll sort itself out, but probably not much so before November.

    So it goes. The blog’s something fun. When I get more time to update and read others’ blogs I shall because I enjoy it. In the meantime if it gets a bit slow then so be it – it’s important we don’t let our hobbies feel like additional commitments after all.

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