“Life could punch you in the throat no matter how you chose.” – Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy

August 15, 2009 at 1:18 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

both Are we entering a Golden Age of the short story? First, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and now this hugely entertaining collection from Maile Meloy. The title is taken from a poem by A.R. Ammons. The poem consists of a single sentence:

“One can’t have it / both ways and both / ways is the only / way I want it.”

In the story “The Children,” Fielding is torn between his wife and his lover. In a moment of exquisite anguish he recalls this poem and thinks to himself, ‘What kind of fool wanted it only one way?’

What kind, indeed. Meloy’s stories are full of people avidly pursuing ends that are almost sure to prove mutually exclusive. They want their spouses, and they want their lovers. They take lovers carelessly and yet yearn for a stable domestic life, as in the story “Nine.” That’s the age of Gwen’s daughter Valentine. Theirs is not a cruel household, nor even an indifferent one. And yet you will wish fervently that circumstances could be different for Valentine, a sweet and confused child surrounded by clueless, self-absorbed adults.

Meloy’s stories are often informed by a kind of bitter irony. In “The Girlfriend,” a father’s desperate effort to protect his daughter goes horribly awry. He relentlessly presses yet another girl for the truth of what actually happened on one fateful night. Eventually he gets what he is seeking from her, and it proves to be information that will haunt him for the rest of his life. “The Girlfriend” is the most somber tale in this collection – and, incidentally, one of the best crime stories I’ve read in a long time.

“Spy Vs. Spy” offers a pained, often hilarious look at the way in which family members cheerfully drive one another nuts. George, a ski instructor, has invited his brother Aaron along on a ski trip. George’s latest girlfriend Jonna will also be there. For his part, Aaron will be accompanied by his wife Bea and daughter Claire. Claire is a comely college girl; in Aaron’s eyes, George has lately been paying her undue attention.

It’s hard  to imagine two people with more disparate temperaments than George and Aaron. Aaron, an orthopedic surgeon, is a conscientious, conservative person. George, on the other hand, tends to grab life by the throat and shake it until it bleeds. Here’s what happens when the members of the ski party assemble for lunch (Among his other strongly held beliefs, George is a militant vegetarian.):

“‘George,’ [Aaron] said. ‘We should ski together this afternoon.’

‘All right,’ George said warily, pounding the ketchup bottle over his yellowish soy patty.

‘You act like I want to push you off a cliff.’

‘Maybe you do.’ George resorted to a knife, and the ketchup slid out along the blade.

‘You should take me on the good stuff.’

‘You can’t handle the good stuff.’

‘Sure I can.’

‘Honey, you don’t always do well at eight thousand feet,’ Bea said. ‘And you’ve had two beers.’

‘See?’ his brother said. ‘Listen to your wise wife.’

Aaron didn’t like to be reminded of his debility – no one else got sick at this altitude – and he was doing fine. ‘Did you take Claire on the good stuff?’ he asked.

‘Dad,’ Claire said.

‘Claire’s a really good skier,’ George said, through a mouth full of soy.

‘I know she is. I taught her.’

I taught her,’ George said. ‘And she’s thirty years younger than you are.’

‘But you’re only five years younger.’

‘But I ski every day. Stop staring at my veggie burger. Eat your own goddamn burger. Your dead cow corpse burger.’

And that’s just the  beginning…

In “Agustin,” we meet a man who, in his distant youth, had let his one chance at real happiness slip through his fingers. Over the years he has more or less come to terms with the consequences of his action – or inaction; the last thing he needs or wants is to be reminded of what was lost all those years ago. As the story opens, Agustin is leading a blameless, quiet life on his ranch, a prosperous enterprise. A visit by his daughter and son-in-law – she with one eye to her potential inheritance – brings little in the way of solace and much in the way of regret. He cannot help thinking to himself  “Children were experiments, and his had failed.”

*************************************

I read this novel when it came out three years ago and loved it: family Meloy has another novel, and another story collection: liars half. I look forward to reading both.

Meanwhile, I feel like saying to lovers of quality fiction: Put away your Grishams, your Pattersons, your Picoults (if only for a little while) – Maile Meloy can really write!

Maile Meloy

Maile Meloy

3 Comments

  1. It’s that time again: end of the year Best Books lists « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] and also to the individuals selections of several veteran reviewers. I am thrilled to see that Maile Meloy’s hugely enjoyable story collection made the top ten. So did The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, a work that held me spellbound for […]

  2. Best books of 2009: my own favorites « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Trevor To Heaven by Water by Justin Cartwright The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin It’s Beginning To Hurt by […]

  3. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Beginning To Hurt – Lasdun Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It – Maile Meloy In Other Rooms, Other Wonders – Daniyal Mueenuddin Too Much Happiness – […]

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