The low, seductive hum of human peril pulsates through Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, a short story collection that is stunning in every sense of the word. As the regret-filled protagonist of “Augustin,” a story about amorous regret, laments: “Life could punch you in the throat no matter how you chose.” So it goes with each of Meloy’s deftly-crafted stories in which life’s punches are always delivered in startling ways.
Meloy, the author of two novels and a previous short story collection, writes in the tradition of Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore, decoding the delicate shifts that detonate relationships and render extraordinary the everyday. But her settings and characters are more virtuosic in range, almost unsettlingly so—a cowboy falls into hopeless love with a lawyer, an aging Argentinean aristocrat seeks out a former lover, two brothers express their lifelong sibling rivalry on a ski holiday, a woman in a small town holds a sexual lottery, and the hilarious yet poignant tale of a screen diva presumed to be dead who arrives at the door of her grandson’s home in L.A.
Each miniature universe feels true and authentic, the result of subtle, uncluttered storytelling, wryly-observed detail and crackling dialogue. Recurring themes provide connective tissue—adulterers who are fickle even as adulterers, flirtations between women and much older men, fathers who fail to protect their daughters, one in a twist so catastrophic its unfolding is literally painful to read. In “O Tannenbaum,” a family outing to pick up a Christmas tree mutates into a taut, suspenseful tale of erotic danger that ends with the central character feeling “both the threat of disorder and the steady, thrumming promise of having everything he wanted all at once” waiting for the punch, just not knowing how it would be delivered.