Book Review: Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It

Posted on August 19, 2010

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For a while there, I was on a short story kick (actually, binge is more like it).  It started off innocently enough.  One night, I hastily picked up two books from the “just returned” shelf that happened to be short story collections: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri and The Things Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Adiche.  Both collections frame issues of transnationalism, education, and patriarchy beautifully.  And they did it in 30 pages or less.  I was hooked.  I decided to continue the transnational theme by rereading How to Leave Hialeah by Jeanine Capó Crucet and dip into the nonfiction world with David Sedaris’s Holidays on Ice. It was no wonder I was giddy like an addict to hear that Maile Meloy was coming to the Harvard bookstore to talk about her new short story collection.

As I discussed in a previous post about Haruki Murukami’s new memoir, Meloy was previously known as a novelist.  The stories in this new collection don’t share much in common in terms of plot, characters, or setting.  True, Meloy takes a lot of cues from rural life in each of them, but this is more due to (as she herself acknowledges) familiarity with small-town Montana than deliberate planning.  The collection opens with a short epigraph: a poem, but A.R. Ammons: “One can’t/have it//both ways/and both//ways is/the only//way I/want it.”  The title bespeaks Meloy’s central theme.  Her protagonists are not satisfied with having it just one way; their breaking points come when they are confronted with the true costs of their actions and possessions.

In the opening story “Travis, B.,”  a farmboy with a bad hip leftover from a bought of polio falls for an out-of-town lawyer teaching adult education classes in his small town.  He’s comfortable with his life and he knows she doesn’t belong in his neck of the woods, but he hopes.  In “Red from Green,” a father seriously endangers his 15-year-old daughter trying to extract testimony from a witness in an industrial poisoning case.  In the final story, “O Tannenbaum,” a family picks up a stranded couple (auspiciously named Bonnie and Clyde) while hunting for a Christmas tree, ironically disturbing their holiday spirit.

Meloy has a real way with words.  I found myself admiring her delicate, restrained prose in every story.  In “Travis, B.” she paints an entire panorama in two sentences: “He walked outside, into the dark, and looked out over the flat stretch of land beyond the fences.  The moon was up, and the fields were shadowy blue, dotted with cows.”  And her stories are really lovely–she plays with her theme without overdoing it, and she handles ethical dilemmas in innovative ways.

Still, you know what?  Her book put my love affair with short stories on hold.  I wanted to like it.  She’s a gifted writer, and I really would like to read her novels, but unlike the stories I mentioned above, Meloy’s short fiction doesn’t excite me.  It’s almost too perfect, teetering on sterile. That sounds harsh.  But this collection just didn’t grab and hold the reader in me, only the literary scholar–the writing didn’t have the heart that should really ground short fiction.  I found Both Ways simply too well-crafted, too writers workshop, and yes, maybe even too New Yorker.

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Posted in: Book Review