Why some men are the way they are

 

Nine Ten Again
Phil Condon
200 pages, softcover: $17.
Elixir Press, 2009.

Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It
Maile Meloy
240 pages, hardcover: $25.95.
Riverhead, 2009.

Where The Money Went
Kevin Canty
208 pages, hardcover: $25.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2009.

Three recent books of short stories feature complex but credible characters in relationships tingling with tension. Even as they play on well-worn themes -- unrequited love, marital discord, moral weakness -- the stories in these collections are full of provocative plots and unexpected finales.

The majority are told by or about men. In Nine Ten Again by Montana writer Phil Condon, working-class men struggle with war-induced stress, homelessness and painful decisions. The men in Maile Meloy's Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It mostly crave what they can't have: a wife and a mistress, grandma's money, the truth about a murder. Many of Kevin Canty's male narrators seem to be on their way out of ennui-infested marriages in Where The Money Went.

The title piece of Montana author Canty's collection is a potent short-short story in which a man sits at his kitchen table evaluating the events and decisions that drained his finances: the big house with a swimming pool, the cars, high-end bicycles and skis, vacations, private schools, and, finally, the lawyers. In other stories, a parade of men from Montana to Arizona brood over their relationships. Often, frustration and anger ("Sometimes it seems to me that anger is the engine of a marriage, the power that drives all the other parts") propel them into risky behavior: sex with a friend's wife, drunk driving, ignoring dangerous weather conditions.

As "The Boreal Forest" unfolds to a queasy ending, Canty's narrator sits under a tree, waiting out a snowstorm. He thinks about the possibility of dying, and it puts his pathetic human drama into perspective. "That was the joke:" he thinks, "all the rest of it, Maria (his lover), Catherine (his wife), even Ellie (his young daughter), we had made it all unreal. And this was real, this mountainside, this storm, and it wanted to kill me."

Dicey weather and convoluted relationships also compel many of Meloy's characters in Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It. The title story (whose name is taken from a poem by A.R. Ammons) expresses the sentiment directly, but the men in some of the other stories also want it "both ways." In "O Tannenbaum," for example, Everett invites the wrath of his wife and scares his young daughter during their annual Christmas-tree-cutting outing when he offers a ride to Clyde and Bonnie, a couple stranded in the woods. Although his neck prickles when they offer their names, Everett's decision is motivated by the fact that "this wasn't country where you left people in the snow" -- and by lust. The young woman is "the kind of blonde who (holds) sorority car washes." Just his type.

In "Two Step," a brilliantly crafted anecdote about a menage a trois, Meloy places a pregnant wife and her husband's mistress in the couple's kitchen while the husband races toward home. Alice cries, telling her "friend" about the agony of suspecting an affair without knowing the identity of the other woman. Or does she? "The Children" leaves the reader wondering if Fielding will abandon his beautiful and talented wife for a woman just a few years older than their daughter. As in most of Meloy's work, these stories show that the core of this California novelist's prodigious talent is her ability to tantalize, revealing small but crucial details at critical moments.

Similarly, Condon's skill with nuance enables him to tackle complex social and moral issues that might derail a writer with less finesse. Nine Ten Again features stories about workingmen and their challenges, including war. Chad, the Vietnam veteran who narrates "A Country Voice," knows that his furniture-building therapy, a suggestion from his "VA head-bender," is like trying to eradicate an acre of dandelions with a screwdriver. Terrors from the past -- where his buddies disappear in "a giant red sneeze in the jungle" while he fights for a government that "like(s) to start wars, but not to finish them" -- saturate his present. Duck, the born-again bricklayer in "Cakewalk," touches his Bible but doesn't open it. His decision to keep quiet about the cause of a co-worker's death makes "him wonder if he should ever open it again."

Most of the men in Nine Ten Again make their decisions from the middle of a situation -- long after the events that shaped their lives have occurred. But for a graphic look at how one boy gets hurled into manhood, turn to the end of the book. "Bridgestone, 1963" is shaped by an unsettling coming-of-age theme. After an appalling incident changes Cane Raone's joyful adolescent obsession with motorcycles into grief and guilt, he seeks respite in the spectacular landscape of western Colorado: "I walked to the window. I wanted to punch my fist through one of the panes, as if that could let all the bad things in the room rush out and disappear in the mountains." The darkness of that one event appears to stain Cane's future. And we are left to imagine how that stain might color his relationships and influence his adult decisions.

Reading the stories in these three collections is like entering a building full of freshly washed windows. They allow us clear (if circumscribed) views into the lives of many different kinds of men and offer a roomful of hints about why they are the way they are.