Maile Meloy’s tales of turning points
by Molly Templeton
BOTH WAYS IS THE ONLY WAY I WANT IT, short stories by Maile Meloy. Riverhead, 2009. $25.95.
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It is a phrase that sounds certain, stubborn and impossible, a train of thought sure to stall out between stations, neither here nor there. It’s the statement of a person unable to make a choice. The title of Maile Meloy’s newest short story collection comes from a poem by A.R. Ammons that appears as the book’s epigraph and, unidentified, in “The Children,” an affecting story about infidelity, family and love. The poem rings in the head of a husband: “The force with which he wanted it both ways made him grit his teeth. What kind of fool wanted it only one way?”
Not the fools in Meloy’s collection, who are often certain about nothing but their uncertainty. The book opens with “Travis, B.,” one of several tales set in Montana, where twentyish Chet Moran struggles with a leg misshapen by polio and with his inexperience with life beyond riding horses and feeding cows. The world is strange, small and so much bigger than he is. Meloy moves through ordinary parts of the world, summer cabins and simple houses and a power plant that ruins a town’s fishing but also provides needed jobs. Her characters are torn, but quietly; even the tragedies that spike “Lovely Rita” and “The Girlfriend” are human-sized, so far from overwrought that Meloy’s prose is cool, her gaze flinty as she finds the places where people are about to snap and then presses, lightly.
But if her incisive, observant prose is cool, it’s never distant. There are lines in Meloy’s stories that might send a shiver through your chest, feelings caught in a delicate net and pinned to the page in uncluttered sentences. Discomfort and desire come to these men, women and children through their choices: to buy an elephant gun, go on a ski trip, pick up a pair of hitchhikers who turn out to have unlikely names or ask questions that shouldn’t be answered. The images with which Meloy encompasses her characters’ dilemmas linger like Polaroids, the colors a little off, the pictures a little fuzzy: the blanket warming an unfaithful husband and a wise wife, the yellow Datsun of a departing crush, a half-trimmed Christmas tree, a long Montana drive, a spinning maple seed. There is enough room in these brief, affecting stories that you can shape them to fit your world: The power plant employees go to a bar that sounds familiar, and the tree climbed by 9-year-old Valentine could be in your yard. Meloy invites her readers into strange lives that have nothing and everything in common with our own. It’s a particular sort of magic she works, domestic, detailed and real, and it lifts her stories to unexpected, engrossing heights.
Fantasy: Fighting Genocide
Two girls, one both infantile and a potential savior, one quiet but resourceful, have to save not only their people but also an entire island. In The Lost Conspiracy (HarperCollins, 2009; $16.99), British author Francis Hardinge forces the European-focused world of fantasy into the realm of the colonized, and not in an insulting, white-guilt-focused way. The adventure begins early, with young Hathin’s desperate need to hide the fact that her sister, Arilou, may not actually be one of the chosen people of the island — one of the “Lost,” who can send their senses out while their bodies remain behind. But that’s a mere fillip compared to the deceits, historical wrongs, horrific plans and daring escapes to come. Murderous rage, desperation, legendary travels, dangerous volcanos, an evil dentist and more haunt the 576 pages of this young adult book. Ignore the completely bogus cover and dive into the richly imagined jungle. The Lost Conspiracy, as enchanting, terrifying, glorious and unusual as any of the best fantasies, should keep fantasy-loving youths riveted and wanting to know more.
— Suzi Steffen