Not too long ago, you’ll remember, I was positively gushing about Maile Meloy’s most recent collection of short stories, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. As it so happens, my gushing was genuine. I wasted no time acquiring the rest of her backlist, which includes two novels and one other acclaimed collection of short stories, Half in Love (2002; PEN/Malamud winner). I was hoping to space out my reading of these short stories, but they are so short (most around ten pages), and so good, I couldn’t help reading one after another until they were all gone.
Because my recent praise of Meloy is so fresh, it’s tempting to just say, This is as good — maybe better. Read this too. But thankfully these stories are also the type one likes to talk about. So, right to them:
The opening story in this collection reminded me a bit of “”Travis, B.,” the opening story in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (which, if it comes up again, I’m shortening to Both Ways). This one is called “Tome.” At first, the story seemed fairly simple. A young female tort lawyer has a hopeless client. He was injured on the job, collected his workers’ compensation, and is now statutorily prohibited from pursuing a claim against his employer in court. No matter how many times she tells him this, he doesn’t quite believe her. The story has some action that lands the man in prison. I really don’t want to give any more away. Let me just say that this is one of the best stories about human intimacy I’ve ever read (the intimacy is what reminded me of “Travis, B.”). Seriously, somehow this plot line lends itself well to a story about human relationships, it does it in twelve pages, and it does it without any sentimentality — none.
There are fourteen stories in all in this short collection. A few of them take place out of the country, like “Aqua Boulevard,” which takes place in France, has a slow buildup to a wrenching ending that is as simple as an older man going to watch his children at a swimpark after he’s seen their pet dog killed. This story won the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction. Another story, “Red,” takes place in wartime London. It comes complete with a numb soldier about to ship out, but it somehow avoids being a war story.
Those stories aren’t my favorites, though. I prefer the ones where Meloy enlivens the still relatively unknown American West. One of these, “Ranch Girl,” is told in the second person — always a tricky thing to pull off. But this one is not only in the second person; “Ranch Girl” is also subjunctive. There are a lot of if’s that then lead to the developing story where a young, intelligent girl tries to choose whether to stay on at a ranch, and be like so many of the other women she knows, or go away and become something different.
In grade school, it’s okay to do well. But by high school, being smart gives people ideas. Science teachers start bugging you in the halls. They say Eastern schools have Montana quotas, places for ranch girls who are good at math. You could get scholarships, they say. But you know, as soon as they suggest it, that if you went to one of those schools you’d still be ranch girl — not the Texas kind, who are debutantes and just happen to have a ranch in the family, and not the horse-farm kind, who ride English. Horse people are different, because horses are elegant and clean. Cows are mucusy, muddy, shitty, slobbery things, and it takes another kind of person to live with them. Even your long curled hair won’t help at a fancy college, because prep-school girls don’t curl their hair. The rodeo boys like it, but there aren’t any rodeo boys out East.
“Ranch Girl” shows a story with many paths: “‘You’re so lucky to have a degree and no kid,’ Carla says. ‘You can still leave.’” This is an interesting story about how some of the seemingly simple choices are difficult to make.
Another of my favorite stories was “Paint,” a simple story about a man who is basically estranged from the wife he lives with. We see their strained relationship from the beginning. He’s apologetic, and she deals with him with tense silence, which is both a way of avoiding reconciliation and a way to punish him:
Marie was washing breakfast dishes at the sink, light from the east window gilding her hair and shoulders.
“Leave those,” Jack said. He wanted the morning to last, wanted to linger over the coffee. He guarded his cup.
“It’s almost done.” She was dressed smartly for work, his tall and formidable wife, in pressed black trousers and a silver blouse. Her black hair, striped now with gray, was twisted up at the back. She studied an ice cream bowl Jack had left to dry the night before, then dropped it into the sudsy water.
“That was clean,” he said.
“No, it wasn’t.” Into the water when the drinking glass he’d washed, the spoon.
“Marie,” he said sharply. She looked at him in surprise.
“Just leave the damn dishes,” he said. “Please. I’ll do them right.”
She finished in silence and dried her hands on a towel.
Marie resents Jack for many reasons. For one, he never seems to pull through and has time and again disappointed her with empty promises he truly intends to fulfill. One of those promises was to stain their deck. Animated with the prospect of doing something right, Jack rushes out to buy supplies and begins the job.
One thing Meloy is good at is thwarting our expectations. Much like Flannery O’Connor, who will just slap you in the face with something, Meloy throws things at her characters that surprise us, make us rear back, as much as them. That happens in “Paint,” and we are left reading a story we just didn’t expect from its beginning, though, again like Ms. O’Connor, we look back and think it was perfect.
There are many who doubt the short story. Even since I wrote my review of Both Ways (hmmm, thought I’d get the chance to use that abbreviation more when I noted it), I have read again and again comments from people who say they just don’t like short stories. I hope that this blog has done a bit — with its weekly New Yorker forum, its (somewhat) bi-weekly The Clock at the Biltmore feature, and its frequent reviews of short story collections – to show that I think short stories are not only worthwhile but are incredibly addicting. I can’t help but think that these dissenters just don’t know many short stories. I think this because they tend to say things like this: “I like the depth of a novel” or “I like that in a novel you can really get to know the characters.” I understand this, but it is a misconception to think that a short story, even these very short stories, cannot be deep or that you cannot develop a very intimate relationship with the characters. Furthermore, these stories are still on my mind, I’ve continued reading them a second and third time, because there is so much in there to think about.
While it’s true that novels and short stories are different beasts, they are both beasts, and the art of the short story is going strong. For some, there’s a whole new world of literary possibilities. Of course, for me it is now time to open up Meloy’s novels.