Monday, February 28, 2011

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy

I want to talk to you about another collection of short fiction by a young and very talented writer by the name of Maile Meloy. This collection has the intriguing title: Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It. Most of the short story writers I have been reading in the past few months write about city life and the economic and emotional problems of young folks trying to carve out meaningful lives in the harsh times they find themselves in. This collection, too, is about young people here and now, but almost all the stories occur in rural settings in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and other western states. The writing is sparse and deceptively simple—a kind of realism I don’t expect from young writers. Indeed, as I began reading her stories the first writer who came to mind was Hemingway, although I think the emotional intelligence of Meloy’s writing far surpasses that of Hemingway. The writing, itself, is subdued, the pathos emerging from the events described rather than the language used.

The very sparseness of the writing and the patience of the writer in developing the plots make it difficult to get a flavor of the stories by quoting passages, so I will simply have to briefly describe a couple of the stories trying to capture enough of their allure to get you to pick up the book and read it. The first story, “Travis, B”, is about a young man who contracted polio as a child and is left with a hip that does not work quite right, seeming to destine him to a life of little physical activity. However, his response is not one of protecting his vulnerable body, but instead of riding and breaking horses from a young age. “… he broke his right kneecap, his right foot, and his left femur before he was eighteen ... From then on, he walked as though he were turning to himself to ask a question.”

After leaving home he takes a series of jobs bailing hay, feeding animals through harsh winters, and simply surviving. To escape the utter isolation of his winter job, he goes into the nearest town, and simply following a group of people he sees walking into a school, he finds himself in a classroom where the teacher, Beth Travis, has been hired to teach adults about school law. What follows is a kind of love story, though with no grand conclusion, no wedding bells, no happy-ever-after. And yet there is something about the naivete and earnestness of Chet, the young man, as he attempts to woe the attorney that is both charming and sad.

In another story, “Lovely Rita,” a young man named Steve takes a job at a nuclear power plant that is hated both by the town-folk and by the workers in the plant. Although unable to admit his attraction to Rita, a girl he and his friend Acey meet at a local bar patronized by the plant workers, he manages to set his friend up with the girl. Even after a freakish accident at the plant leaves Acey dead, Steve is unable to confess to Rita his attraction, but he does discover that Rita wants to find the father who abandoned her as a youngster, and unable to think of a way to get enough money to hire a private investigator, she decides to raffle herself off to the plant workers—five dollars a ticket, the winner getting lovely Rita for the night. Seeing Steve as her only friend, she enlists him to sell the tickets to the workers at the plant. Like the first story described, this one ends pretty much as it started—Steve’s love for Rita undeclared. But again the loneliness and emptiness of the characters emerges so clearly via the flat, unsentimental prose.

In another story, “Two Step,” Alice, the wife of a doctor at the local hospital, invites a woman doctor, Naomi, who works at the same hospital to her home for morning coffee. In fact, what she wants to discuss is her conviction that her husband is having an affair with someone at the hospital. Alice, herself, wooed the doctor away from a previous wife, convinced his already having both a wife and a child was a technicality given that they were soul-mates who were simply meant to be together.
“The whole soul mate idea,” Alice said bitterly, “is really most useful when you’re stealing someone’s husband. It’s not so good when someone might be stealing yours.” She paused, looking out the window. “If I knew who it was, I would get down on my hands and knees and I would beg her to go away, just go away and leave my family alone.”
Of course, the twists and turns in the story have to do with just who the other woman is, and I’m not about to tell. But as in the other stories, the simplicity and near flatness of the prose contrasts so incredibly with the pathos of the story.

As for the intriguing book title, Meloy opens the volume with a poem by A.R Ammons:
One can’t
have it

both ways
and both

ways is
the only

way I
want it.
For most of the sad characters in this collection, they do not get it both ways, nor any way at all.