August 2009

Erin McKnight

fiction

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it by Maile Meloy

Following her critically acclaimed first story collection, Half in Love, and the equally well-received novels Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter, Maile Meloy's return to the short form yields a stunning collection of stories focused on individuals caught between conflicting physical and emotional domains. Deceptively simple in its styling, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it evinces an appreciation for the ordinary life and the adverse forces that drive people's desires. Meloy is a writer who relishes the inherent beauty of longing, her remarkable grouping of short works reflecting the oppositional influences that blur the wants and needs of the most decent and modest of characters.

Within the collection's eleven stories, Meloy focuses her extraordinary eye on the people who usually go unnoticed, but whose struggles against life's banal routines reflect a widespread and ever-present compulsion for more. Whether it is the father seeking answers from the girlfriend of the man responsible for his daughter's murder, or the out-of-work father surprised by the presence of a wealthy grandmother believed dead, this sought-after need for more all too often results in less than originally existed. For Meloy's characters, what remains after the status quo is disrupted is often as unrecognizable as the momentous change promised by their original desire.

As a metaphoric parallel suggestive of unrestrained emotional yearning, the collection's language is a revelation -- accessible, yet not readily amenable to straightforward interpretation -- for Meloy is a writer who sweeps deceptively simple tales with grace across guileless regions like Montana. In "Travis, B.," the collection's first story, Meloy pauses to capture ranch hand Chet Moran's struggle at reconciling his terrain after a young law school graduate alters his weeknights with twice-weekly classes. The unflinching ruggedness of the backdrop to Chet's frank brush with love appears to impel Meloy; her precise realism tempered with an expressive refinement that emerges unexpectedly throughout the panoramic narrative. In describing the effects of polio on Chet's body "at a time when kids weren't supposed to get polio anymore," the author delivers one of her most dynamic and compelling sentences: "From then on, he walked as though he were turning to himself to ask a question." Likewise, the collection's reader is destined for a pivoting series of contemplative double takes.

The dualism of Both Ways is most masterfully rendered when the focus shifts from the geography of the external to a subterranean emotional landscape. The most contentious of battles are fought in the interior, as Meloy's characters wage war against the ritual and expectation of domestic settings. It is within the home that the influence of desire is most readily perceived as irrational and destructive, as one character in "The Children" comes to realize not in his leaving but in his staying. Embroiled in an affair with his grown children's former swimming teacher yet comfortably tethered to a decades-long marriage, "the force with which he wanted it both ways made him grit his teeth" -- the collection's title and line from an A.R. Ammons poem exerting its influence on the otherwise-respectable Fielding.

It is this unrelenting and destructive force of desire that tugs at Meloy's characters: the people trapped between ordinary and remarkable, responsible and selfish, righteous and guilty. Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It possesses transformative potential, yet in thematic keeping the reader finishes the collection charged with the responsibility and the gift of holding these possibilities close -- acceding to them only when desire takes hold. Chet "did what he knew he should do," as did Fielding when he "held his wife and felt himself anchored to everything that was safe and sure," yet as Maile Meloy evocatively permits, he also "kept for himself the knowledge of how quickly he could let go and drift free."

 

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it by Maile Meloy
Riverhead
ISBN: 159448869X
240 Pages

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