Living

Complex characters, not tidy endings

A ranch hand with a bad leg is briefly infatuated with a woman who commutes to his remote Montana town to teach a night course. A teenage virgin takes a float trip down river with her father, her lawyer uncle and his client and is groped by the client.

A young woman, her lover accidentally killed, decides to raffle herself for a one-night stand in order to raise money to leave town. Longstanding sibling rivalry leads to a fistfight on a dangerous ski trail. Recently unemployed, a young father receives a visit from a wealthy grandmother thought to be dead and hopes to be included in her will.

These are a few of the situations in the 11 stories that make up Maile Meloy's second collection, "Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It."

Some wit has said that Anton Chekhov wrote the first New Yorker story -- a clever way of describing a narrative that is middle- rather than end-oriented, more interested in exploring character and situation than managing a moral conflict toward some resolution or revelation. A number of Meloy's stories have appeared in The New Yorker and live up to such a characterization.

She is at her best with domestic scenes in which dialogue and description intensify tension and deepen character. Like John Updike, but without his gleaming lyrical detail, she has a genuine talent for rendering intimate relationships, charting the subtle evolution of feeling with all its changing hues.

Four stories involve love affairs in which men are torn by loyalty and desire, wanting the thrill of a tryst and the stability of a relationship. At the end of "The Children," a father recalls a line in a poem brought home by his daughter: "Both ways is the only way I want it." Then we read: "The force with which he wanted it both ways made him grit his teeth. What kind of fool wanted it only one way?"

Stories that grapple toward enlightenment with this question are more interesting than those that are open-ended, feature generic philanderers and lead to slight illumination for reader or character.

Several stories, however, move to stunning closures. In "The Girlfriend," a father attends the trial of his daughter's murderer, wanting to pry "the young man's eyeballs out of his skull with a ballpoint pen." The guy smirks and maintains his silence even after a life sentence has been rendered.

The father arranges a private meeting with the murderer's teenage girlfriend in hope of discovering exactly what happened and quickly discovers he's out of his league with this "budding psychopath." She expects money and concocts a sadistic but plausible story that places responsibility on the father for having called the police, causing the kidnapping to go wrong. Too late the father realizes he "should have never come. Ignorance was bad, but it had been infinitely better than this."

I wish a few more of Meloy's stories had such power.

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