Reviewed by Katy Einerson
Maile Meloy’s second short story collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It seems to hover quietly above the threshold of some immanent yet unnamed private disaster as her characters repeatedly gasp for balance in their tangled lives. The individuals in each of her eleven stories struggle with impossibility—wanting while having, remembering while forgetting, constancy amid change. They are caught on both sides of a widening chasm, knowing that a flutter of movement, any decision, offers only uncertain gain and the irrecoverable loss of possibility.
Meloy takes the title of her collection from a poem by A.R. Ammons, which she also offers as an epigraph:
Ammons’ poem seems to insist on collapsing Hamlet’s classic skeptical dilemma, however futilely, and Meloy in turn places it in the sphere of modern American realism. The compact intensity of Ammons’ poetic voice is traceable in Meloy’s own narrative style: she writes with a certain assured concision as she exposes her characters’ inner psyches with illuminating selectivity. Her realism is an emotional one; as an observer she is poised and precise, her narration omniscient and deeply honest. Her stories unfold as though unhindered by artifice—as if they had already existed when she found them.
Meloy’s versatility emerges in this collection as her narrative voice takes on the perspective of a dejected factory worker coping with the death of his best friend, an affluent doctor on a family ski trip, a lonely ranch hand in love with an out-of-town lawyer, a wealthy and aging Argentinean aristocrat, a nine-year-old girl entangled in her mother’s unstable relationship, and the grieving father of a murder victim, among others. The backdrop is largely American and nearly half the stories are set in Montana, Meloy’s home state. Meloy’s Montana has an intensely private quality to it, as if it is hiding from some larger American stage. Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It is marked by a fierce, almost reclusive interiority. Her characters appear most frequently in the midst of their domestic lives. We find them at home, in their kitchens, like Alice in “Two Step,” crumbling at the thought of her cheating husband, not once suspecting that the woman who has come to comfort her is her rival. Or they are small families traveling together, like Sam and her father on a summer canoeing trip in “Red from Green,” or Everett and Pam cutting down a Christmas tree with their little daughter in “O Tannenbaum.” Or we simply find them alone, like Chet Moran feeding cows in winter in “Travis, B.” and Steven Kelley in “Lovely Rita,” orphaned and glumly employed at the local power plant.
The collection is consistently more isolating than it is intimate. In “The Girlfriend,” Meloy’s most outwardly troubling story, a man, Leo, confronts a young woman behind the closed curtains of a Montana hotel room. She is the girlfriend of his daughter’s killer, and despite an already guilty verdict, he has pulled her into this dark, enclosed space, still searching for an explanation for his daughter’s death. Leo’s grief boils into imaginary violence as he fantasizes about attacking the murderer in court, hearing “the satisfying pop of the trachea, the sudden flow of blood.” The eighteen-year-old girlfriend, Sasha, is an obstacle he cannot negotiate. She offers him sex, which he first refuses, repulsed. But as the senselessness of his daughter’s death seizes him, he becomes manic, manipulative: “He had the wild thought that if he did fuck her, he could control her. And if he could control one small part of the situation, he might come out the other side a man who could live with himself, a man who could sleep. Or he might destroy what life he had left.” He no longer seeks justice, even revenge, so much as selfish peace of mind, and he is willing to take it at any cost. He hunts it with a leonine energy that at times overshadows his paternal sorrow, thrilled with “the excitement of the chase, of discovery.” The discovery he finally unearths is more crippling than he’d imagined and pins him even more acutely in his grief, leaving him nothing but empty time, “decades . . . for him not to forgive himself.”
Loneliness and abandonment find their echoes in every story. In “Red from Green,” Sam, a young teenage girl, embarks on a canoe trip with her father, uncle, and a witness in one of her uncle’s court cases. The witness, Layton, takes an interest in Sam and develops the beginning of a friendship. One night as Layton, Sam, and her father sit around the campfire, her father abruptly rises and goes to his tent. Alone with Sam, Layton’s attention becomes physical and, to her, frightening. She escapes to her tent and the incident passes without remark. When the trip is over Sam continues to be troubled by her father’s leaving. Had he meant to desert her? Did he know what would happen? In this story Meloy captures the uncertainty of adolescence—the notion that somehow, somewhere, something has been gained and something lost. Sam finds herself sliding along a continuum, between the green of innocence and the red of experience. Her newfound experience is perhaps made more disquieting with the consciousness that it was not one she forged for herself, but one she was abandoned to.
Even Meloy’s most domestic settings lack familial warmth. The precarious subtexts of marital and sexual relationships figure prominently in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, and it is in the face of adultery that her characters seem to most fully want it both ways. She exposes simultaneously who her characters are and who they’d rather be. In “Two Step,” Alice and Naomi talk over tea in Alice’s kitchen on a wintry Montana evening. Alice is distraught and suspects that her husband is being unfaithful. The dance becomes verbal as Meloy seamlessly establishes dramatic irony: Naomi is her husband’s lover and she is there under the guise of a comforting shoulder, with a slightly perverse desire to discover how much Alice knows. When the husband comes home the kitchen floor seems to fall out and each character is left to grapple for footing in the now unfamiliar space. Alliances are uncertain and disaster seems to be edging in when the husband takes Alice in his arms and twirls her around the kitchen, leaving Naomi to slink out the back door and into his car. Stability is pitted against fulfillment; the desire of one can never fully extinguish the other, and each character is left to wait and hope.
Dialogue plays a provisional role in Meloy’s stories, and the relationships she constructs seem to question the plausibility of honest human communication. Well-founded trust is hard to come by. “The Children” is another story of a husband torn between the comfort of familiarity, the pleasure of fidelity, and the satisfaction of his private desires. The opening epigraph surfaces once again in the context of this story, as the husband lies next to his wife while thinking of his lover. He repeats the poem to himself, which his daughter had brought home from college:
“Both ways is the only way I want it.” The force with which he wanted it both ways made him grit his teeth. What kind of fool wanted it only one way? . . . He held his wife and felt himself anchored to everything that was safe and sure, and kept for himself the knowledge of how quickly he could let go and drift free.
In an odd way, Meloy seems to link the pursuit and fulfillment of desire with shame. Her characters hide what they want, and are frequently embarrassed by it. Fielding, the husband in “The Children,” cannot bring himself to disrupt his family with his affair and expose himself to his wife’s and children’s judgment. Similarly, Augustín, a wealthy Argentinean aristocrat, is in love with a maid in his eponymous short story, and goes to propose to her upon finding her after many years. When he was younger he had been “too afraid of his teenage daughters to offer her marriage.” But this time it is she who is unwilling to expose herself to the hatred and ridicule of family and society, preferring the honest work of providing for her son. It is not so much a tone of judgment that Meloy adopts in these stories, but rather an exposure of the sincere difficulty of pursuing personal happiness in the face of public disapproval. This fear of disrupting the status quo seems to be what drives her characters so deeply inward.
This profound inwardness can at times create an almost claustrophobic atmosphere. Meloy writes of Fielding, who is thinking of his lover, “All he wanted was to preserve that feeling, of the two of them alone together, and make all obstacles to it go away.” This continued desire to retreat and hide from society becomes oddly stifling, especially in the context of the wide-open Montana horizons. But opening up and self-exposure are dangerous games in Meloy’s fiction. Strangers and outsiders are frequently presented as threats to whatever fragile stability her characters hold on to. Layton in “Red from Green” is one such dangerous outsider. “O Tannenbaum” also clearly identifies outsiders as ominous and menacing. The family stops along the side of the road for two hitchhikers, another couple, who went out cross-country skiing and lost their car. Pam, the wife, wants to drive away and preserve her family’s self-contained security. Everett, her husband, reasons you “can’t leave people in the snow” on Christmas and they take them in to help look for their car. The tension mounts as the two strangers reveal their names as Bonnie and Clyde. But even as the passengers prove themselves to be physically peaceful, another threat arises as Pam notices sexual tension between Bonnie and her husband. Memories of her husband’s previous infidelity come back, and we are again in the milieu of uncertain marital relationships and the ubiquitous threat of instability.
“The Girlfriend” is of course another example of the dangers of outsiders, as Leo’s daughter is killed by a man who breaks into her home and attacks her. But the collection’s subtle agoraphobia goes deeper than a simple fear of strangers. In “The Girlfriend” especially, it is Montana itself that seems dangerous. As Leo thinks back on what he could possibly have done to prevent his daughter’s death, he considers the possibility of having kept her on the East Coast for college and not letting her move to the University of Montana to study forestry:
If they hadn’t sent her at fifteen to the outdoor course in Wyoming that convinced her to want bigness, ruralness, westernness. Leo designed sky-blocking office buildings for a living, and wondered if forestry was a direct challenge to him. . . . He had argued with Emily about her choices, to test her resolve, but her gray eyes would only get solemn and sure, and her chin would lift stubbornly. . . . Even as a child she wanted vast forests, not gardens.
Montana’s bigness and openness translate into vulnerability—its wide open spaces offer no protection and nowhere to hide.
The threat of personal and familial invasion, interplay between fragility and stability, and the precariousness of decisions in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It propel Meloy’s stories forward with fixating energy. Meloy has a gift for vivid, natural storytelling; her creation of suspense is effective and subtle. At about twenty pages each, her stories neither rush nor drag and always manage to mesmerize as they unfold. Meloy’s intense study of her characters remains perhaps the most fascinating aspect of her stories—she seems to pin them like butterflies on a bulletin board for momentary scrutiny before pulling away, leaving them to whatever secluded existence they have carved for themselves, and leaving us with riveting and absorbing fiction.