One way or another 

Meloy's grim stories play it smart but safe

Maile Meloy has titled her latest short story collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, a title that comes from an A.R. Ammons poem. In its entirety (the line breaks are after every other word), the poem reads: "One can't have it both ways and both ways is the only way I want it." Ammons' short poem surely reflects something of our collective desire as human beings, but the stories that make up Meloy's collection seem to take the axiom a step further, as if to say: "You may want it both ways, but if you try to get it both ways, you're not going to get it any way."

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While Meloy is unfailingly realistic about the fate of her characters' whims, she's also sympathetic to them, understanding that unattainable desires, somewhat tragically and more often than not, rule the human condition. It's a collection where indecision and disappointment reign supreme.

In the opening story, "Travis, B.," a 22-year-old cowpoke named Chet Moran falls for Beth Travis, a young lawyer who has foolishly accepted a job that requires her to drive from Missoula to Glendive twice a week to teach a night class on school law (it's a nine-and-a-half hour jaunt each way). Chet, who cares not a fig for school law, sits in on the class—at first to abate his loneliness and then, because of Beth. After class, Chet accompanies Beth to a local diner where she eats a late supper, and grows increasingly weary because of her drive.

For his part, Chet makes stabs at appearing benignly romantic, on one occasion escorting a hesitant but not unwilling Beth to the diner on a horse. When a middle-aged man with "a bowling-ball gut" replaces Beth one day (according to the replacement, "Miss Travis found the drive from Missoula too arduous"), Chet impulsively hops in his truck and drives all night to Missoula. When he finds Beth, he awkwardly explains: "I just knew that if I didn't start driving, I wasn't going to see you again, and I didn't want that. That's all." Beth neither runs into his arms nor chases him off with her daddy's rifle. She does nothing: "He stood there waiting, thinking she might say something, meet him halfway. He wanted to hear her voice again. He wanted to touch her, any part of her, just her arms maybe, just her waist. She stood out of reach, waiting for him to go."

Beth's response is heartbreakingly anticlimactic ("Chet suddenly wished that she had quit the class because of him, that he'd had any effect on her at all"). The deep and sustaining melancholy that comes from the nonevent is a note Meloy hits often and well throughout the collection. Her characters enter the scene full of purpose, only to have that intent dissolve lamely at their feet.

There's the husband who wants to leave his wife for his kids' old swimming teacher, but before he can break the news to his wife he finds he's unable to say the words. When his wife preemptively asks if he's going to leave, he assures her he's not going anywhere: "It was the only thing he could say that wouldn't change everything, and he didn't know if he was buying time or if it was true."

In another story, the 15-year-old daughter of a single father in Montana goes on a floating trip with her father, uncle and a client of her uncle's. When her father leaves her alone with the client, the man makes a sexual pass at the girl that mostly terrifies her. Afterwards, father and daughter are uneasy with one another. She decides to attend boarding school back east, something they'd been considering halfheartedly. After breaking the news to Dad, "she felt a flood of warmth for him, an overwhelming feeling that it was a mistake to go away. He hadn't meant to leave her there. He hadn't known what would happen. He definitely hadn't meant for it to happen. Again she wanted to ask, to make sure, but instead she took her dishes to the sink, and the moment was over."

On one level, these stories are profoundly admirable. Meloy is a natural storyteller, one who recounts the ballads of men and women living lives of quiet desperation with poignancy and startling accuracy. On another level, though, she becomes a victim to her own formula, one where disappointment upon disappointment start to feel like a one note theme. This isn't to suggest Meloy should add a happy ending here or there—that would destroy this collection. While Meloy paints different scenarios with different characters, the movement of each of her stories is almost identical from one to the next, rendering that moment of disillusionment more predictable and less powerful with each story.

It seems the best thematically linked short story collections (Joyce's Dubliners comes to mind) often begin with a story that hits one note perfectly and then gradually crescendos into something more symphonic, adding depth and dimension to that one originating note. Meloy's Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It hits that originating note—and hits it effectively—but never ventures very far from it. The danger is that we may get used to glossing over the very kinds of moments Meloy wants to highlight.

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