I grew up in a very small town in Idaho. The nearest big city was Salt Lake City, 250 miles south — and even it’s not a big city. Now that I work in New York City, now that 25 miles is a big distance (it seems to take the same amount of time to go 25 miles here as it did 250 miles in Idaho), I find myself missing the open spaces and the mountains and plains landscape of the West. So one thing I loved about Maile Meloy’s recent collection of short stories, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (2009), was the immediate familiarity with that vastness. Meloy grew up north of me in Montana, where many of these stories take place.
I’ll state it up front: this is one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. From beginning to end, always just when I thought Meloy couldn’t pull it off again, I was fully engaged and drawn into the lives of her torn characters. Some of my admiration certainly comes from my relationship to the landscape and to the characters here — she portrays them so well — but that’s not really it. Meloy’s writing is direct and incisive. Within these eleven stories Meloy’s characters breathe and their depths are shown in strong and unique plotting.
Often, the stories are fairly simple and straightforward. My favorite, one I almost wish I hadn’t read so that I could still read it for the first time, was the book’s first, “Travis, B.” Immediately we get to know the central character, Chet Moran, and the small town he grew up in:
Chet Moran grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren’t supposed to get polio anymore. In Logan, they still did, and he had it before he was two. He recovered, but his right hip never fit in the socket, and his mother always thought he would die young.
There’s no evasiveness here. In prose so direct as to appear simple when linked together with “and” and “but,” Meloy sets up a sad but matter-of-fact tone. Loneliness is just below the surface as the characters go about their lives. Quickly, Chet is around twenty years old and still walks “as though he were turning to himself to ask a question.” The direct prose continues as Meloy sets up the foundation for a story that is both sad and innocent and terrifying.
He left home at twenty and moved up north to the highline. He got a job outside Havre feeding cows through the winter, while the rancher’s family lived in town and the kids were in school. Whenever the roads were clear, he rode to the nearest neighbor’s for a game of pinochle, but mostly he was snowed in and alone. He had plenty of food, and good TV reception. He had some girlie magazines that he got to know better than he’d ever known an actual person. He spent his twenty-first birthday wearing long johns under two flannel and his winter coat, warming up soup on the stove. He got afraid of himself that winter; he sensed something dangerous that would break free if he kept so much alone.
In order to get out and meet people, Chet begins driving up and down the streets, looking for groups. One night he sees a bunch of people going into the school, so he parks the pickup and joins them in a classroom. These people, all teachers, have come together for the first of what will be a bi-weekly course on education law. The young, pretty, flustered instructor enters the room, and Chet decides to stay and enjoy the pleasant company, even if he doesn’t participate or even care about what everyone is talking about.
One night the instructor asks Chet where she can find some food quickly. It turns out that she is not from the area. In fact, she lives on the opposite side of the very long state of Montana. She signed up to teach the course because when she was finishing law school she was afraid of not having a job; she went for whatever she could find. Now she regrets it because she has a “real job” back where she’s from, and partly as a joke they have given her the license to complete her term in this miserable teaching job. I can’t imagine. In order to teach these Tuesday and Thursday night classes, she must drive for nine hours each way — thirty-six hours per week on the long winter roads. After a few weeks she is obviously exhausted.
On the other hand, Chet’s only solace in his lonely, empty week are those few hours with her. Waiting to see her on those nights is nearly more than Chet can stand. There are tender moments when Chet does his best to charm her and try to make her time there a bit more palatable. We know that Chet is incredibly lonely, has always been lonely, and we want him to find some happiness in this budding relationship. Still, he and the instructor are worlds apart, and we’re not sure, though he’s always been polite and good natured, what he might do to ensure those worlds come together. It’s a wonderfully crafted, lonely story, amplified by the vast, open distance in Montana.
Though this was my favorite story in the book, I was not disappointed by the rest. For the most part the premises continue to be fairly simple as we watch simple people struggling with their conflicting desires and sometimes getting into situations that make the reader’s throat go dry.
Two examples where I found myself physically affected by the story (short breath, dry throat, tensed muscles) are “Red from Green” and “The Girlfriend.” Both stories put older men in close proximity with younger girls. Though the initial motives are guilty but not sexual, the tension reminded me of the hotel scene in Roth’s American Pastoral (though what happens is very different).
In “Red from Green” a young girl accompanies her father on a boating trip. Their companions on the trip are her uncle, a private attorney, and the central plaintiff in a class action law suit her uncle is litigating. The trip is meant to smooze the plaintiff who is thinking of dropping the suit and moving away; if he leaves, the case dries up. Throughout the day the girl watches as her father (who is a district judge) allows the man to take advantage of his desirability. The plaintiff catches fish that are too small but keeps them anyway, something her father usually has no tolerance for. Later the plaintiff takes the girl out to practice shooting, using illegal hollow point bullets. Late in the evening, after the uncle has already retired to his tent, the father also gets up from the fire and goes to his tent. Before entering it he looks back at his daughter whom he has now left alone with this strange plaintiff, who has just asked if she could please kneel on his back to help him loosen up some tight muscles. It’s horrifying to read and wonder just what is going to happen. Worse, why? Did the father expect nothing to happen? Why would he leave it to chance? Did he actually expect something to happen? We have no reason to disrespect this judge. From all accounts, he’s a fine man who runs a disciplined life and courtroom. He’s a protector. But what is that moment of ambiguity about? It’s a great story.
“The Girlfriend” begins when Leo, a man in his fifties, shows up at a hotel room to meet a teenage girl. The air is tense. We soon find out that the girl is the girlfriend of the man who murdered Leo’s only daughter. The case has just ended with a guilty verdict, but this girlfriend lied on the stand to protect this boy who raped and killed another woman. It’s more than Leo can stomach, so he’s asked her to explain it. The tension in the prose makes it feel like we’re in the room with them, and it’s very uncomfortable to witness the discussion between these two broken and desperate people interact. Leo learns more about himself than he’d hoped.
There are other male-female struggles, like in “Lovely Rita” when a young man is killed in an accident at a construction site and his girlfriend comes to his best friend for help: she’d like him to set up a raffle at the construction site for a night with her. In “Two Step,” a wife who suspects her husband is unfaithful discusses the matter with the very woman he is being unfaithful with — and then he arrives, and we feel sorry for both women.
There is also the quirky “Liliana,” which begins with a sentence that echos Kafka’s Metamorphosis:
On a hazy summer afternoon in Los Angeles, while my wife was at work and our children were napping, I answered the ringing doorbell to find my grandmother, two months dead, standing on a stoop.
Liliana, the grandmother, was a very rich woman with a past in war-time Germany cinema. She and her grandson never saw eye-to-eye. She seemed to think him unworthy and never shared much, if anything, with him, forcing him to make his own modest way through the world. He despised her. He doesn’t want anything from her — has resigned himself to that fate, actually — but he certainly resents her. And here she seems to have returned from the dead.
While I stripped the master bed and carried the sheets to the wash, I thought about Jesus and Elvis. People had wanted them back, badly, and still did. But who would have willed Liliana back.
There’s some nice comedy when Mina, the wife, arrives home:
“Mina, dear,” Liliana said, standing to take my wife’s hand. “I haven’t seen you with this Sapphic haircut. Your children are lovely.” / Mina’s hair was cut short because she had no time to deal with it, and I thought of it as gamine-like and sexy. “Thank you,” Mina said. “You look great. Especially under the circumstances.”
As quirky as this story may seem, it actually — and it’s incredible how Meloy always succeeded in doing this — is a subtle look at this man, his insecurities and his strengths and his final devastating revelation.
I was so pleased with this collection I immediately marked Meloy as one of my favorite authors. She’s written one other collection of short stories, which one the PEN/Malamud, and two novels. I believe I have all three waiting for me in the mail today. And I can’t wait to see what she produces in the future.