Maile Meloy has a knack for picking titles. Take her latest offering, a collection of short stories: Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. The phrase is taken from an A.R. Ammons poem, one that appears twice in the book as epigraph and allusion. In “The Children,” a philandering husband, Fielding, arrives at the family lake house intending to confess his affair with the children’s swimming instructor and leave his wife of two decades. But once home and “mired in [the] comfort” of family life, Fielding finds he cannot take the fatal step. He is, like all Meloy’s characters, “doomed to ambivalence and desire.” As he agonizes over his plight, he suddenly recalls a poem that his daughter brought home from college: “One can’t have it both ways, and both ways is the only way I want it.” Fielding is struck by the similarity of his situation: “What kind of fool wanted it only one way?” he wonders.
Meloy loves such dualities, the push-pull of a character caught between competing hungers. In her first book, also a short-story collection, Meloy’s characters are only—as its title indicates—“half in love” with current circumstance and on the hunt for better prospects. In her two-part family saga, Liars and Saints (2003) and A Family Daughter (2007), Meloy’s troubled California Catholics try to free themselves from the bonds of family and religion only to entangle themselves further. To exist in a Maile Meloy story or novel is to live constantly on the cusp of either/or: Freedom or security? Order or disorder? Duty or desire?
But as her character Fielding knows, the act of choice is one fraught with both peril and opportunity. Or as another character puts it, “Life could punch you in the throat no matter how you chose.” Marriage is the classic example (“Marry, and you will regret it. Do not marry, and you will also regret it”), and the 11 stories in her new collection are heavy on the philandering husbands and the women who love them. Lawyers, too, abound in the book: who, after all, is better at arguing both sides of a case?
Meloy is a sympathetic writer, able to invest even her more unlikable characters with humanity. But she’s also a clear-eyed one, and a deep moral seriousness animates all her work. Both Ways is eloquent about how our choices shape who we are and determine the people we might become. Opportunities harden into consequences, and we can’t always undo the result. In one of the collection’s best stories, “Two-Step,” a woman named Alice confides to a friend that she believes her husband is having an affair. She’s pregnant and terrified her husband means to leave her. The friend tries to reassure her, but Alice knows what her husband is capable of: she met him while he was still married to his first wife and with a newborn baby at home.
“The whole soul mates idea,” she laments, “is really most useful when you’re stealing someone’s husband. It’s not so good when someone might be stealing yours.” Alice, no less than Fielding, wants it both ways: she admits to treating her husband’s first wife as a mere “technicality,” but when it comes to losing her husband, she’s outraged that another woman could be so careless of her family’s happiness, so cavalier about the bonds of marriage. “If I knew who it was, I would get down on my knees and I would beg her to go away, just to go away and leave my family alone.” But then Alice’s husband returns home unexpectedly, and the two seem to reconcile. Meloy leaves the ending open, with husband and wife slow-dancing in the living room. “He was acting like the man he wanted to be, in hopes that he could become it,” she writes. “He would keep acting until he couldn’t stand it any more, and then he would be the man he was.”
Meloy is adept at slipping in such devastating revelations just below the reader’s radar. Her technique is to deliver her twists in as understated a manner as possible. Take “The Children,” the story featuring Fielding. The title seems off; Fielding’s son and daughter appear only at the end of the story and play minor roles. Yet the reader registers the full measure of Fielding’s betrayal of his family only once teenage Gavin returns home to find his father with the beautiful Jennie, a family friend and one of Fielding’s past “transgressions.” Gavin suspects nothing, his face lighting up at the sight of Jennie: his son, Fielding realizes, is “in love, unrequited,” with the girl. Only then can Fielding admit to himself the effect a divorce would have on his son and daughter: “His children had faith in marriage as a safe destination, and if he didn’t leave, they could go forth in love with their confidence intact.”
Fielding stays, but as in “Two-Step,” Meloy lets the reader decide whether he is only “acting” for the moment like a better man: “He held his wife and felt himself anchored to everything that was safe and sure, and kept for himself the knowledge of how quickly he could let go and drift free.”
This temptation to let go and drift free is one Meloy understands well, and what’s most compelling about Both Ways is her gentle suggestion that this fallibility is not merely personal but also societal. Americans are masters at having it both ways, ever susceptible to “the steady, thrumming promise” that we can have everything we want without cost to ourselves or others. Meloy’s art is to remind us of those costs: even as she embodies a particular character’s consciousness, she allows us to see what that character cannot, or will not, admit to herself. Thus, in “The Children,” she gives us Gavin smiling at Jennie, or in “Two-Step” a photo of Alice’s stepson—“a small child, frightfully knowing”—who is the collateral damage of an affair gone sour. She reminds us of those we might otherwise overlook: 9-year-old Valentine, another “frightfully knowing child,” jostled about as her self-absorbed mother tries to “find herself” (“Nine”), or Sam Turner, a teenage girl left on the brink of catastrophe by her father’s carelessness (“Red from Green”).
There is an insistent—and decidedly unhip—sincerity about these stories. Adults behaving adulterously have provided the subject for many a short-story collection (see Updike, Cheever, Ford), but it’s hard to think of another that treats infidelity, and the myriad other small failings of ordinary people, as unironically and as earnestly as Both Ways does. Meloy is used to bucking trends; a traditionalist, both in style and subject, she’s writing against the prevailing mode of hysterical realism—its jaunty, performative cleverness, cutesy pop references, and manic plot constructions. Her strengths are stubbornly old-fashioned ones: a spare yet meticulous realism, concentrated character study, and, above all, the restraint and precision of her prose.
Meloy might well be the first of what the late David Foster Wallace called the new literary “-anti-rebels”: “Born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.” But Meloy’s is a singular talent, and no other writer today has quite pulled off her trick of sounding both familiar and fresh at the same time. Still fewer write with the authentic moral force she achieves in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.