Even if I wasn't already a fan of Maile Meloy's writing, I would have read Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It for the title alone. In the collection's penultimate story, a conflicted husband reflects on a poem by A.R. Ammons ("One can't/have it/both ways/and both/ways is/the only/way I/want it"). He lies curled up with his wife of three decades, comforted by her intelligence and aging beauty, while he contemplates leaving her for the recently-teenaged girl who taught their now-grown children how to swim: "The force with which he wanted it both ways made him grit his teeth. What kind of fool wanted it only one way?" Each of the eleven stories poses this same question, as affairs, marriages, and childhoods teeter on the edge of decision: go or stay, live it up or keep on living. None of the characters are terribly likeable, but their interior conflicts make us feel for them, even as we narrow our eyes at their lack of fortitude. In "Two-Step," a woman reflects on her best friend's unfaithful husband: "He was acting like the man he wanted to be, in hopes that he could become it. He would keep acting until he couldn't stand it anymore, and then he would be the man he was."
These are stories about people becoming who they are, and the great drama is in the wishy-washiness of the wrestling. Meloy's prose is clean, but not too spare, detailed without feeling labored, quiet, but never detached -- all of which elevate the often piddling nature of the central conflict to great emotional effect. For a writer these stories are examples of true craftsmanship, and for a reader they are just plain good.
Abbreviated from "Short Stories for Summer"
This review is from the July 8, 2010 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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