Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It
By Maile Meloy
Riverhead, 219 pages, $25.95
Some writers achieve their effect on the reader through surface finery: poetic frills, dazzling description, or a quirky voice. Maile Meloy doesn’t go in for that sort of thing, which is why when she gets you by the throat or heart, as she does in every story in her second story collection, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, you never see it coming. The way a good seamstress hides her work by making her stitches neat on top and bottom, Meloy writes clean prose that seems like it must have been effortless to construct until after you’ve finished reading the story and you realize the psychological complexity of the tale she’s told.
Meloy grew up in Helena, and many of the stories in this collection are set in Montana. Even when the stories occur in that sparsely populated state, Meloy skips the nature and zeroes in the people, portraying how they yearn for and torture one another when placed in close proximity. One of the best stories in the collection is the lead-off piece, “Travis, B.,” about a young polio-stricken ranch hand named Chet Moran who “walked as though he were turning to himself to ask a question.” Shy because of his ailments, Chet takes lonesome jobs feeding livestock in winter, and he’s working one such job in Glendive, near the North Dakota border, when he gets stir crazy and drives into town. He notices people going into the school building, so he follows them, where he finds a “tired and nervous” young woman named Beth Travis teaching an education law class.
After class is over, Beth confesses her problem to Chet: she lives and works in Missoula, and accepted the job teaching two nights a week in Glendive before she graduated from law school, afraid she wouldn’t be able to find work. Now she has to make the nineteen-hour roundtrip twice a week and report to work in Missoula in the morning. Chet is smitten, and doesn’t know what to do with his impossible crush on the lawyer from Missoula; he makes an ill-fated attempt to spark a long-distance relationship. You feel for both of the kids in this story, but even though Meloy currently lives in Los Angeles, she doesn’t provide them with anything close to a Hollywood ending.
In several of these artfully constructed stories, there’s a clear pivot point, something that happens that makes the characters involved and the reader reevaluate everything they’ve thought up to that point. In “Red from Green,” fifteen-year-old Sam Turner is on a float trip in Montana with her father, her lawyer uncle, and Layton, a man her uncle is trying to convince to join a lawsuit. She’s about to head east for boarding school. “She was awkward at fifteen, and praise made her suspicious,” Meloy writes after Layton compliments Sam. Layton makes several such comments and advances that neither Sam nor the reader is certain about whether or not her father has witnessed, and when Layton asks her to walk on his back and her father retreats to his tent, leaving the two of them to whatever will happen, it’s surprising, and you feel Sam’s confusion. Although Sam is innocent, the complex psychodrama she undergoes on the float trip makes her seem far more experienced than her wild boarding school classmates.
In “Lovely Rita,” a factory worker’s best friend is killed in an accident, and he reluctantly helps his friend’s girlfriend stage a raffle for her sexual services so she can raise money she says she’ll use to get out of town. In the funny “Spy Vs. Spy,” two brothers who have harbored lifelong animosity toward each other finally duke it out when they are middle-aged and on a ski vacation. In “Two-Step,” set in Missoula, Naomi goes to comfort her friend Alice as she weeps over her suspicions that her husband is cheating and tells Naomi she’s pregnant. We don’t learn until late in the story that Naomi is the other woman. Several other stories turn on past, future, or suspected adultery. Two that come across as a departure from the others are Agustín, the story of a wealthy old man with disappointing daughters, set in Argentina, and “Liliana,” in which the narrator’s wealthy, eccentric grandmother turns out not to be dead after all. But in some ways the subjects of the stories are their least interesting aspect, as narratives of adultery and divorce are common in fiction.
More striking is the way Meloy structures the stories she tells, how she hides secrets within them and deploys them at exactly the right moment. And although Meloy’s language at first seems unassuming, she has a gift for selecting apt, simple words to convey an image or a feeling such as in “The Children,” when she writes: “‘Hey!’ Gavin said, with undisguised joy at seeing Jennie, and Fielding understood that his son was in love, unrequited. She took the tribute seated, like a queen.” Or in “Two-Step,” when Naomi glances at a photo in the home of her lover, “a black-and-white close-up in a pewter frame of the devastating toddler who could only be his son.” Or in “Liliana,” when the narrator’s grandmother is about to leave: “I tried to keep the neediness out of my voice, but it wasn’t neediness, it was need.”
In the stories in Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, Meloy expertly draws the reader along toward unexpected places.
Maile Meloy will appear in Missoula at the Montana Festival of the Book on October 22 at the Wilma Theater.