Maile Meloy’s Knockout Short Stories

2 minute read
Mary Pols

Don’t let the easy accessibility of Maile Meloy’s writing fool you; she’s capable of witchcraft. You could blaze through her first novel, Liars and Saints, happily reach for the second, A Family Daughter, see that it’s about the same family and prepare yourself for a sequel. Instead, what you get is the same saga, different narrative. Characters die in one book and not the other, have sex in one and suffer tormented lust in the other. Individually, each novel is well crafted and compulsively readable. Together, they’re a meta-authorial head game that makes you rethink the nature of fiction and your attachments to it. I’m still not over them.

So I approached Meloy’s new collection of stories, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (Riverhead; 219 pages), with some suspicion. The title nods to her love of duality, but how could this measure up to the quiet audacity of that novelistic one-two punch? By working in opposition, it turns out. If her paired novels demonstrate that more–e.g., a retelling–can be more, Both Ways shows how less really is too. These 11 stories are quick, powerful jabs, startling in their economy; you’re propelled toward each ending, certain she won’t be able to wrap it up in one more page, and you’re proved wrong every time.

Meloy is an expert on loneliness, showing us how people find it and why they stay with it. In “Travis, B,” a battered cowboy acts out a romantic fantasy only to find he has no idea how to meld it with reality. Meloy also mines relationships for their own facets of loneliness, most often spawned by distrust. In one brisk, scathing story, “Two-Step,” we observe a philandering husband from the perspective of his mistress, who thinks she is clear-eyed (“He was acting like the man he wanted to be, in hopes that he could become it”) but who is actually hopelessly besotted. In another, “The Children,” we go inside the mind of a cheater debating his options. Meloy leaves his ambivalence unresolved, but the story is undeniably complete. And like all of Meloy’s other precise, perfectly formed stories, it could also be the beginning of a novel you couldn’t put down. Both ways is, apparently, how this writer gets it.

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