Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).
Calling this volume the “collected” stories of Grace Paley is a little silly: it couldn’t have been too hard to collect them. These 45 stories previously appeared, in the same order, in just three books–published in 1959, 1974, and 1985–and are the author’s only works of fiction.
Perhaps a more apt title would have been The Celebrated Stories of Grace Paley, as that was the point of bringing them together in this format: to celebrate them as masterworks of 20th-century American fiction, and to introduce them to any unlucky readers who haven’t yet had the delight of tripping over a Paley sentence.
In “Goodbye, and Good Luck,” the elderly Aunt Rose describes her girlhood as a ticket seller for the Yiddish theatre and her unconventional but finally satisfying relationship with the company’s heartthrob. As passionate as her affair may have been, what the reader falls in love with here is Rose’s voice: her language brims with surprising locutions and images as Paley recreates a Yiddish inflected English bursting with vitality.
Another jewel, “The Loudest Voice,” centers on young Shirley, whose loud Jewish mouth comes in handy when her school needs a narrator for the Christmas pageant. Her mother, Clara, blanches at the prospect of her daughter playing Christ, but Shirley’s father has a wider perspective, attuned to the choices they have faced: “You’re in America! Clara, you wanted to come here. In Palestine the Arabs would be eating you alive. Europe you had pogroms. Argentina is full of Indians. Here you got Christmas … some joke, ha?”
Many of Paley’s stories feature the semi-autobiographical Faith Darwin (whose name may be Paley’s joke on her own: Faith isn’t far from Grace, and part of Charles Darwin’s legacy was the challenge his notions of evolution presented to his predecessor William Paley’s creationist “natural theology”). These largely plotless stories reflect the diversity of New York, which includes African American and Hispanic voices–see particularly the surreal fable, “The Long Distance Runner”–as well as those of Faith’s aging parents in the Children of Judea, a Jewish senior citizens’ home.
Of the handful of excellent stories that follow Faith’s visits to her folks, perhaps the most useful is “A Conversation with My Father,” which articulates the author’s theories about writing. If a story’s wandering aimlessness confounds you, refer back to this “Conversation,” in which Faith explains that she despises “plot, the absolute line between two points…Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” Suffused with this spirit of openness and tolerance, Paley’s utopian, left-wing beliefs do not blind her to the struggles and hardships of contemporary life, but rather allow her to treat the experiences of those around her with the utmost sensitivity and kindness.
Although this book collects all of Paley’s stories, she has also written several volumes of poetry, and in 1998, she published Just As I Thought, a collection of poems, essays, and political speeches. Judith Arcana’s Grace Paley’s Life Stories: A Literary Biography (1993) and a volume of Conversations with Grace Paley (1997) provide insight into the author’s personal life and opinions. Those enchanted by Paley should look back to the novels of Anzia Yezierska, whose Yiddish-inflected English prose and leftist politics both prefigure aspects of Paley’s work.