Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It has received significant critical attention and may well get more in the next few weeks as American fiction prize season moves into high gear. It was one of five fiction works on the New Yorks Times 2009 Top 10 list and a Los Angeles Times Best Books of 2009. Tony's Book World included it in his year-end top 10. Meloy is also no stranger to prizes, even though this is only her fourth book — her initial collection, Half in Love, won a PEN-Malamud award and she was shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize for her first novel, Liars and Saints.
As you might gather from my experience, Meloy is a highly readable writer. Her prose is direct and accessible. She is a realist, but that is not her strength — it is the curves that she plants in her realism (and there is often more than one in any given story) that make her work so seductive. That is a trait that I particularly appreciate. Ian McEwan does it in his best books and the two do bear comparison.
Consider this excerpt from “The Children”, which supplies the title for the book. Fielding is opening up his cabin, but is obsessed with how he will tell his wife that he is leaving her for the young woman (now 32, it must be said) who as a 17-year-old taught their children how to swim. Another young woman, a friend of his children whom he has also dallied with, shows up to says the truth is known. And then his wife arrives (we know she is smarter than Fielding) and effectively traps him into promising he will stay:
She watched him, his eminently intelligent wife. He pulled her closer to make the scrutiny stop, and feeling her head on his shoulder was reassuring. He was doomed to ambivalence and desire. A braver man, or a more cowardly one, would simply flee. A happier or more complacent man would stay and revel in the familiar, wrap it around him like an old bathrobe. He seemed to be none of those things, and could only deceive the people he loved, and then disappoint and worry them when they saw through him. There was a poem Meg [his daughter] had brought home from college, with the line “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?
“Doomed to ambivalence and desire” is a condition that could be ascribed to most of Meloy’s central characters, whether they find themselves caught in a relationship that seems to be lacking something or whether they are considering entering a relationship. These 11 stories are not linked but the frustrating desire to have it both ways is a uniting theme.
Meloy was born in Montana, the state immediately south of Alberta where I live, and sets a number of her stories there. I admit that added to the appeal of this collection for me — Montana’s mix of prairie, foothills and mountains is not dissimilar to my home territory.
One characteristic of this part of the world, for those who don’t know it, is that things are a long way apart, a trait the Meloy puts to good use in the opening story “Travis, B.” The B. of the title is Beth Travis, a young lawyer in her first job in Missoula, who has signed up to teach an evening course in school law in Glendive. The problem is that Missoula is on the west side of the state — Glendive is an icy eight-hour drive across state, near the North Dakota border. A tough commute for a two-hour class.
The other main character in that story is Chet Moran, a ranch hand marked forever by the polio that afflicted him when he was two. He had a job in Billings but:
That winter, he took another feeding job, outside Glendive on the North Dakota border. He thought if he went east instead of north, there might not be so much snow. He lived in an insulated room built into the barn, with a TV, a couch, a hot plate, and an icebox, and he fed the cows with a team and sled. He bought some new magazines, in which the girls were strangers to him, and he watched Starsky and Hutch and the local news. At night, he could hear the horses moving in their stalls. But he had been wrong about the snow; by October it had already started. He made it through Christmas, with packages and letters from his mother, but in January he got afraid of himself again. The fear was not particular. It began as a buzzing feeling around his spine, a restlessness without a specific aim.
Chet wanders into Travis, B.’s class, takes a seat and falls, kind of, into love — well, infatuation anyway. If the commute is a problem for an evening class, you can imagine the challenge it poses to a relationship, particularly for two people who are not very experienced at relationships anyway.
It is hard to adequately describe a Meloy story without providing spoilers. Those two are reasonable examples of what the collection has to offer. In every story, the author finds a wrong note or jarring chord and then plays it to perfection. Her realism supplies the framework, the off-chord is explored in detail to provide the compelling aspect of the story.
I haven’t read Meloy’s other books, but the titles alone (Half in Love, Liars and Saints, A Family Daughter) would seem to indicate that this is the territory she does like to explore. She does it well enough here — and I certainly recommend this collection to anyone who likes the short story genre — that I look forward to my own future exploration of her work.