They just keep coming, those UC Irvine MFA grads. A couple of years ago, we had Aimee Bender with her first novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own, a loopy, sun-drenched dream book so charmingly weird that I wouldn't be surprised if it inaugurated a little school of SoCal chick fiction. Then a month ago, Bender's friend and fellow matriculator Alice Sebold came along with her debut novel, The Lovely Bones (reviewed here a few weeks ago), a story of family tragedy and recuperation told from the point of view of a murder victim up in heaven that found itself hovering near the top of best-sellers lists coast to coast. Both novels depart significantly from the realism (frequently autobiographical) that typifies most first novels: Bender by rendering her settings as weightless, De Chirico-like dreamscapes pierced by the crazy, bent longings of her characters; Sebold by telling her story sub specie aeternitatis.
Perhaps because their brand of unhinged, slightly magical realism dovetails so nicely with the sweet, flaky pop postmodernism that the culture has been throwing out in everything from Ally McBeal to films like City of Angels and M. Night Shyamalan's movies, Bender and Sebold have gotten lots of attention and sales (Sebold recently sold the movie rights to her book)—which, hey, good for them—but that's not something UCI grad Maile Meloy and her book of stories, Half in Love, is likely to get, which is a shame because hers is the strongest of the three books.
Half in Love's stories are all straight-up realism, unfussily rendered, though in today's hopped-up publishing environment, something like defiance comes through in Meloy's quiet-but-stubborn insistence on telling a story about nothing more than an embattled Montana couple trying to buy sandstone from a neighbor so they can build a house or about an American GI during World War II trying to find a little love the night before D-Day. The promotional material compares Meloy to Willa Cather, and I can see that—the prose is craftily spare and exact, there's a lot of attention paid to the work lives of the characters, and her women tend to be thoughtful, sinewy types hardened by harsh weather and the emotional inadequacies of the men around them.
But the comparison also makes Meloy sound old-fashioned, which she isn't. Better compare her to fellow Northwesterner Raymond Carver; the late Carver abandoned a strict minimalist aesthetic and let the reader concentrate on the story instead of the style. And for good measure, think of the Bruce Springsteen characters in The River.
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For a first book, it's sort of stunning. Meloy writes with the burnished simplicity of a long-established, confident pro. Only eight of the book's 15 stories were previously published, a proportion that usually signifies a reader's in for some padding, but some of the best stories are those seeing their first light in this collection, which is a very good sign. "Tome" starts off the collection hilariously if atypically—it's like a single that doesn't sound like the rest of the album. (Meloy, it turns out, is quietly expert at comedy without seeming particularly drawn to it.) It's a story about a lonely lawyer and her client, a gruff construction worker named Sawyer who was slightly brain damaged in a work-related accident and is so enraged that he can't sue (Meloy knows her law, and many of these stories feature country lawyers) that he takes a hostage at the workman's-comp building in town, demanding justice. The lawyer comes down to talk him out of it, only to find that the hostage is a Samoan football player of royal lineage who has befriended Sawyer. Sawyer promises to let the Samoan go if the lawyer promises to help him escape. She duly promises, then double-crosses him straight into the arms of the cops. Sawyer, who never finds out about the double-cross, writes letters to the lawyer from prison, hoping to forge a friendship, and the lawyer, rueful and romantically bereft, finds herself leaning toward him. The story is droll and deft and gives pleasure in every line. The only other story in the collection that borrows some of its tone is "Aqua Boulevard," told from an old Parisian's point of view—the Frenchman's English accent is precise, never overdone—whose little dog gets run over while he's on a long walk full of reverie about death, and he's forced to carry the body through the streets, holding its poor lifeless head up so people don't notice. It's like something out of early Bellow.
Most of the stories, though, take place in Montana, and it's clear this is home turf for her. These stories are richly somber in mood—which mitigates none of the pleasure in reading them. "Garrison Junction" is about an unmarried couple named Gina and Chase—she's pregnant and suspects Chase, who clearly isn't crazy about the idea of fatherhood, is having an affair—who find themselves stuck at a roadside restaurant during a storm when a fatal accident closes the road ahead. Gina's isolation among the bustle of those holed-up with her in the restaurant is brought home repeatedly as she keeps running into the truck driver whose semi killed two people. "Poor sucker," somebody says of the driver. "I don't know how he stands it in here." Eventually, he can't stand it, and he leaves; Gina looks longingly after him, craving escape from all that troubles her, but in the end goes back to face her boyfriend, her pregnancy, her life. (This couple returns in "Thirteen and a Half," another terrific story that takes place 14 years later, with the couple very unhappily married and Gina worried to distraction about her adolescent daughter.)
This decision to face things rather than run is typical of the collection. In "Kite Whistler Aquamarine," a couple doggedly clings together despite their increasing estrangement. In "The River," a man decides to withstand the allure of a sensual woman in order to take care of his sick lover. The stories are filigreed with a sense of renunciation, of low horizons and disappointment, of looming loneliness, but it's combined with a sense of duty, tolerance and compassion that sees the characters through. Through to what is the question, of course, and the answer is love—or, actually, half love—the idea that gives the book its title and prevailing sentiment. The book is filled with people who want to love but have half-forgotten what it means, how it feels, how to make it happen; they just know how hard it is to keep alive, and some of them find they have enough fire in them yet to reach for it again.
Half In Love by Maile Meloy; Scribner. Hardcover, 172 pages, $23.