Sunday, August 09, 2009

Stories imbued with a master's touch

The title of Maile Meloy's new collection of stories comes from a poem by A R Ammons: "One can't have it both ways, and both ways is the only way I want it." Serving both as epigraph for the book and a certain moral revelation in one of the stories, this artless line runs like blood through most stories in this collection. Meloy's characters are stuck in a world of choices — moral, psychological et al — and they can't seem to decide which one to go for.

The first story in the book is called "Travis B", about a loner ranch head in rural Montana, who walks with a limp due to a bout of childhood polio. A Native American, Chet tends horses for a living when, on a boring evening, he chances upon a class on school law. The teacher there is Beth Travis, a white lawyer who drives nine hours to take the class. There is such a wide chasm between Chet and Beth that when Meloy introduces longing, first in the air and then in Chet, it gives the story a raw frisson, reminiscent of Annie Proulx Of course, love in such a case must be unrequited, weighted down as it is by gender and class and race, yet the menacing silence of Chet is a thing unto itself—a self-contained, restrained sparseness of the soul.

The trauma of lost love is also the theme of "Augustin", in which an ageing Argentine widower discovers meaning in his staid life when he finds that his paramour of long ago has returned to town due to straitened circumstances. His daughter informs him that she is now working as a maid in one of the houses he has rented out. When things don't work out as planned, and the lady refuses to accept his help, Augustin "cursed his daughter for bringing the world and its attractions back to his door."

In an interview, Meloy has quoted Ann Patchett on how a short story collection "was like a mall: it needed a few big stories with broad horizons, like the big anchor stores, to make a space in which the smaller, quirkier stories could survive." Indeed, there is wide variety in the collection and Meloy places stories in quite their proper places.

So, in "The Girlfriend", a father meets the girlfriend of his daughter's killer to find out the exact turn of events. The killer has already been prosecuted and there is nothing to be had from this conversation, yet Leo cannot bring himself to let go. The girl, a bundle of contradictions who threatens charges of rape, ultimately reveals a truth about the killing that will leave Leo worse off than when he started.

This story — threatening to drown the entire collection in a gale of grief — is thankfully followed by "Liliana", a light-hearted story about a former Nazi era actress, presumed dead, returning to her grandson's house. The grandson, passing through a protracted spot of financial bother, hopes that her substantial financial assets, now open to redistribution, will land his way, if only he is able to discover a connection he never had with her. But, the best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.

Each of the eleven stories in the collection chooses a moment in its characters' lives when the lines between what one wants and what one can have blur. Steven loses his best mate in a factory accident in "Lovely Rita" and finds his friend's girlfriend seeking his help to stage a raffle for providing sexual services. When Steven refuses, the girl threatens to anyway go ahead with it, with or without his help. Caught in a bind, Steven cannot sort his own feelings, a whirlwind of desire and guilt—and decides to help her. Sex is an ever-present hook in Meloy's stories, working its insidious way into luring characters who show tremendous restraint and come out clean, though ridden with loss and emptiness. The story ends on an anti-climactic note, yet in its evocation of Steven's discombobulated self, it shines.

In "The Children", a man prepares the ground for disclosing to his wife that he has been cheating on her, but when the moment arrives, he is so completely caught up in it — its innocent, regular bliss — that he cannot believe that he, this same person, can feel this way at home and another, bordering on thrill and danger, when with his mistress. And so, "both ways..."

Raised in Montana, Meloy's stories reflect the quietude of her childhood landscape, and a self-assurance that living in the country bestows. Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It is her second short story collection, after her 2002 debut, Half in Love. Having written two novels in the mean time, Meloy gifts us conflicted characters in short, bite-sized stories that are imbued with a master's touch.

No comments: