A Very American Malignancy

Maile Meloy is an expert on having it both ways.

Maile Meloy’s new collection of stories, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, takes its title from an A.R. Ammons poem that appears both as the epigraph of the book and as an allusion in one of the stories. A man named Fielding has gathered his family at their lake house to disclose an affair with his children’s former swimming instructor and to leave his wife. Re-ensconced in the armature of marriage and real estate, however, he finds himself unable or unwilling to speak and suddenly remembers the Ammons poem, which his daughter once brought home from college. It goes, in its entirety: “One can’t have it both ways, and both ways is the only way I want it.” Fielding wants it both ways so badly it hurts his teeth. “What kind of fool wanted it only one way?” he asks himself.

Not many fools in Meloy’s stories do. Each of the 11 stories here features people trying to hold onto what they can’t or shouldn’t have while ignoring what they know to be the price, or ought to know, anyway. Adultery is the classic example of having it both ways, but Meloy finds other, more morally complex ones. In “Red From Green,” a man who is helping his brother to cajole a reluctant witness into testifying for the victims of an industrial poisoning ignores the witness’s attempts to seduce his 15-year-old daughter; the father’s willful blindness leaves his daughter teetering near catastrophe. In “Lovely Rita,” a nuclear plant worker, Steven Kelly, trying to do something for his just-deceased best friend’s girlfriend, Rita, winds up helping her raffle herself off for cash, as if it were possible to be a protector and a pimp at the same time.

Steven is a gentle soul, and Meloy is gentle with him. A pained witness to the many varieties of corrosion (environmental, corporate, moral) eating away at his small Connecticut town, he comes off as almost courageous: Rita claims she’ll hold the raffle with or without him and maybe by getting involved, he can shield her from some of the ugliness to follow. Meloy has gained her cachet as a novelist by demonstrating an unerring empathy for her characters, even when they are a great deal more culpable than Steven. Her steady affection for characters on all sides of a story made her first novel, Liars and Saints (2003)—an intergenerational saga about a French-Canadian family in California, replete with statutory rape, incest, callow priests, secrets, and lies—a thing of loveliness instead of the tawdry melodrama it could have been. Meloy’s next novel, A Family Daughter, which revisited the events of Liars and Saints, didn’t match its power and plausibility, but it performed similarly acrobatic perspectival shifts.

People trying to have it both ways, when you think about it, make remarkably good material for the concentrated character study that is the essence of most short stories. The objects of Meloy’s scrutiny, on the whole, fit the profile of the classical tragic hero; they are decent people with a flaw that rushes them toward their doom. Psychoanalysis has a word for the refusal to acknowledge a reality that blocks the fulfillment of a cherished desire. The word is disavowal, and it leads, Freud said, to the “splitting of the ego”—to a self torn in two, with one self that knows the truth and one self that won’t let itself know it, each jostling for primacy. This way of dealing with reality, Freud added, “almost deserves to be described as artful.” Indeed it does: Literature abounds with souls swaddled in unreality, characters who half-perceive but can’t or won’t avert the coming consequences. Disavowal, in narrative, is irony. It’s the gap between what readers can see and what characters can see or, if they see, can bear to do about their perceptions.

Meloy is a master of this many-tiered irony, diving deep inside a character’s conflicted consciousness even as she hovers maternally overhead, a quiet, sorrowful, only faintly judgmental presence. That is not to say that judgment doesn’t come, or isn’t harsh when it does. In “The Girlfriend,” Leo convinces the girlfriend of a man who raped and murdered his daughter to meet him alone in a hotel room. He wants to grill the girl on what really happened the night his daughter was abducted and killed. The murderer has been convicted; Leo’s investigation is unnecessary. Yet the force of his need to uncover a perhaps undiscoverable truth has driven him into what the sullen girlfriend points out is a compromising situation: At one point she threatens to accuse Leo of rape. She doesn’t; she does something worse. She tells him what he wants to know. It’s a piece of information whose effects he should but never could have foreseen.

Perhaps the best thing about this collection is that it offers up for our consideration disavowal not just as a personal dysfunction but as a social one, too. Meloy’s stories play out against the backdrop of an America that refuses to sacrifice for its urges—that wants it all and damn the consequences—and forces others to live with the mess. A lab worker exposed to organic solvents suffers neurological damage so addling she can’t remember her children’s names “if someone nearby was wearing perfume.” A nuclear power plant raises a river’s temperature and kills off all the fish that the children of a small town were in the habit of catching. Children of divorce are shipped off to boarding schools to take Ecstasy and have sex at unsupervised parties or are raised by parents too selfish to protect them from the aftershocks of their own casual sexual relationships. It is as if an entire nation had abandoned the reality principle and disavowed its responsibility to its young, leaving them at the mercy of despoilers and predators.

Meloy’s grasp of our civic abdication is clear-sighted, large-hearted, and desperately necessary. Her pity flows most abundantly for its victims. This is an understandable sentiment but also, at times, a literary liability. Meloy feels such anguish for the innocent that she cleaves to them almost too closely. There is a superabundance here of the child’s point of view. The tale of the blinkered father is told from the perspective of the daughter. The protagonist of “Nine” is a 9-year-old girl kissed by her divorced mother’s seedy boyfriend’s 10-year-old son. Nearly every story throbs with menace, which often appears in the form of an unsavory character that will feel very familiar to anyone who has read a lot of Raymond Carver or Flannery O’Connor.

Seeing as children see but with an adult grasp of turpitude is another old device in short fiction. Think of Henry James’ What Maisie Knew, in which the misdeeds of two hateful parents are filtered through the eyes of their uncomprehending daughter. Personally, I’d be happy never to let a creepy stranger or charming psychopath near a child in an American short story again. These envoys from what Philip Roth once called the indigenous American berserk, however rich their symbolic charge, have become the deus ex machina of our time.

“Travis, B.” is the best and most haunting story in the book largely because it has no ominous premise, no scary chance encounters. Its tragedy unfolds simply, unhurriedly, the fruit of ordinary life rather than authorial contrivance. Chet Moran is a bright but horrifically isolated Native American ranch hand who tries to start a romance with Beth Travis, a young white lawyer who lives nine hours away. The romance won’t go anywhere, and Chet half realizes that, but doesn’t let himself realize that he realizes it, and drives across Montana and shows up in her office parking lot anyway. Beth seems moved by Chet but could never bring herself to explain why she rushes up to her office while her colleagues regard him with alarm. The reason is too big and awful a topic for parking-lot conversation, having to do with things like racism and the unjust distribution of opportunity and Chet’s passion for unbroken horses, who have kicked him so often he has a steel rod in his leg and can’t sit still for long. The real heartbreak here, though, is that in a muter, sadder part of him, Chet understands all of this all too well.

Precise and restrained, Meloy’s diagnoses of a very American malignancy have an authentic moral force. So does her merciful treatment of the characters in its grip and of the victims of its spread. Young as she is (she’s 37), she has a scope and maturity that at their most rigorous attain the grandeur of prophecy. We need to listen to our Cassandras when they’re as wise as Meloy is. Nonetheless, it must be said—and this is a shameful thing to admit—that people who want it both ways are more interesting than the wreckage they leave in their wake.