“What kind of fool wanted it only one way?” the adulterous Fielding asks himself in the short story “The Children.” As he decides whether or not to reveal his affair to his wife, Fielding recalls the A.R. Ammons poem:
In this moment, he does momentarily have it both ways: the security of staying with the possibility of leaving.
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy is a collection of eleven deceptively simple short stories. “The Children” alludes to Ammons’ poem the most directly, but that wanting is present in every story. Meloy writes about characters who are at a crossroads of a choice, an action, or the one word that will make all of the difference.
The striking thing about these characters who want it both ways, and only both ways, is the amount of tension their wanting creates. The situations are ordinary. Her characters are ordinary: parents, children, farm hands, doctor’s wives, factory workers, the unemployed grandchild of the wealthy, the less adventurous sibling. They are focused on their families or their lovers or both. In fact, Meloy seems to relish in mundanity. But still the stories vibrate. Somehow the sheer gall of ordinary people to have conflicting desires creates stories so laced with tension that Meloy could go toe to toe with any thriller or suspense writer.
The most exemplary of this is the story, “Two Step.” Alice, a doctor’s wife, and Naomi, a doctor, discuss Alice’s suspicions that her husband is having an affair. They do nothing but sit and talk over tea, the very essence of domesticity, yet the tension is as present as in any old-west standoff. I would tell you more, but their conversation plays out like a brilliant poker game that is best read, then re-read. Through Naomi’s perspective, it is not clear which woman holds the winning hand, but the dramatic irony is palpable.
In “Red from Green,” Sam takes her last “float trip” down the river with her father, her uncle, and her uncle’s legal client. Sam is just beginning to acknowledge her own sexuality – her mother died when she was young, and she was raised by her father – when she receives attention from her uncle’s client that unsettles her. She is torn between finding excitement in his attention and wanting to remain loyal to her father.
Even the shockingly simply prose in Meloy’s stories helps to create tension. Each story is presented with adroit clarity and with little flourish of language. In “Two Step,” Alice begins to ask if Naomi knows of a specific woman her husband might be having an affair with: “‘Is there anyone—’ Alice began, as if casually.” As if makes all the difference in the line. It changes a simple question into one that might have motivation and one that might have weight. It is not clear if that is the case, but the two words add complexity to the situation.
In “The Children,” Fielding’s wife reacts to a reminder of a personal failure: “Raye shook her head, wanting to be reassured, but not wanting to let go of her own interesting guilt.” Meloy so simply describes the complexity of her action, revealing depth in Raye’s gesture without an overwrought metaphor.
My own particular relationship to these stories stems from my love for the title. Ammons’ poem is the collection’s epigraph, and the poem has become somewhat incantatory for me. It serves as both a reminder that I can’t have it both ways and that the wanting is perhaps one of the most natural of human desires: to have what one does not, to obsess over two separate, clear choices, this is what makes us human.
And Meloy gives us that in her characters. In “The Girlfriend,” Leo wants to know the truth of his daughter’s murder even if it means never going back, and when he knows it, he only wants to un-know it. In “Lovely Rita,” Steven oscillates between his desire for Rita and his desire to protect her. In “Liliana,” the father both wants his grandmother’s approval and affection and hates himself for wanting it. Meloy presents us with such stark portraits of people that we can’t help but relate. This collection serves as a reminder that we can never have it both ways, but it’s only natural that we do.
Total pages: 219; total FoA pages: 29,044