Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy (Riverhead Books, 232 pages, $15.00)
“Meloy’s stories are both bold and quiet.” Angela Meyer
One can’t / have it / both ways / and both / ways is / the only / way I / want it. – A. R. Ammons
Both Ways… is a collection of eleven short stories written by Maile Meloy, the title taken from the one-sentence poem posted above. Meloy is a writer with a style that’s so cool its chilling; at times she will remind the reader of Joan Didion. And at least one of the stories here (“Liliana”) reads like something Didion might have written for The Twilight Zone. In Liliana, a man in Los Angeles hears a knock on his door and opens it to find his grandmother. Perhaps this does not sound so unusual, except for the fact that his grandmother died two months earlier.
The ten other stories are much more conventional and share a common theme. These are stories of people who have settled into their lives as they are, but see the chance to escape and live an alternate existence. These are people who are tempted by other people and other places. Meloy sets this up so that some of the story subjects elect not to change their lives while others do. Since each protagonist actually wants to have it both ways – retaining his/her current life while also having it change – not one of them finds true satisfaction… The exception is the final story, where one man feels both “the threat of disorder and the steady, thrumming promise of having everything he wanted, all at once.”
This compilation of stories is thus brilliantly structured, placed in a very deliberate order like the songs on a classic record album. As with a great recording, one is tempted to again listen to the songs (re-read the stories) to find the messages that were not obvious the first time through. Part of Meloy’s intelligence is displayed by the manner in which she disguises things. The first few tales are set in the remote state of Montana (far from L.A.) and the reader comes to think that maybe all of them will take place on that stage. They do not.
Meloy also sets up situations that make you, the reader, think you know exactly what’s coming along before she fools you. In one story (“Red from Green”), for example, we see that an older man and a young woman both possess – and practice with – loaded guns before he considers making an uninvited move on her. Someone is going to get shot, right? Well, no, but you will need to read that story to find out what does occur.
College literature professors are going to have a great time showing their students the hidden meanings and lessons buried in Meloy’s seemingly calm and quiet prose. But you don’t need to pay tuition to enjoy these tales of yearning, wisdom and acceptance. For the price of a trade paperback you can slide into a seat in Meloy’s classroom. Take good notes!
A review copy was provided by the publisher (Riverhead/Penguin).