New Wives’ Tales

The Collected Stories

by Grace Paley
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 386 pp., $27.50

Grace Paley was born Grace Goodside in 1922, and reborn in her fiction in 1959 as Faith Darwin, an alter ego whom she endowed with two siblings, Hope and Charles, and to whom she has returned again and again in her stories. As the improbable names suggest, she and her fictional kin are inclined to a rosy view of things, and yet they’re also naturalists who acknowledge a cruel competition for survival. What the names don’t suggest is that they are Jewish and have no intention of being meek or any expectation of inheriting the earth.

This hybrid temperament has a perfectly recognizable political pedigree. Paley and her character Faith, and many of Faith’s friends, are red (or at any rate pink) diaper babies. They are the radical American progeny of a generation of immigrants who dreamed of and worked for a “sensible, socialist, Zionist world of the future.” While “everyone else in [the] building is on the way up through the affluent society, putting five to ten years into low rent before moving to Jersey or Bridgeport,” this second generation, which has moved from the Bronx tenements of childhood to Greenwich Village apartments, is sticking with city “soot and slime.” They’re activists not just in the PTA but on the streets, picketing and pamphleting, worrying about the world’s end.

The literary and personal genealogy of this provincial “progressive if sometimes reformist disposition” has been less clearly defined—until, that is, Grace Paley began writing her stories. They are notably short, sometimes only two pages and never more than twenty. And there are notably few of them: the moderately sized Collected Stories contains all three of her collections, The Little Disturbances of Man (1959), Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), and Later the Same Day (1985). But their gradual appearance signaled the origin of a new species.

At the heart of Paley’s stories is talk, the cadences of conversation and the sounds of voices speaking “the street language and the home language with its Russian and Yiddish accents,” as she puts it in her introduction. The talk is all about wisdom—or the lack of it—in life and in love, but leavening the urgent gabbing is a self-deprecating, urban wit. Paley’s oral spontaneity also goes hand in hand with self-conscious literariness. The storyteller is always thinking, often out loud in the stories themselves, about the fact and the act of telling stories.

Though this verbal flair may make her sound like at least a relative of “Bellow and Roth and all those guys,” as Paley refers to the roughly contemporaneous second-generation Jewish-American writers whose comic, hyperaware monologue style now constitutes a tradition, in fact her talent is remarkably individual. Aside from her politics, it’s not hard to point to two obvious sources of the distance that separates her from them, one literary and the other personal.

Paley started out as a poet, which shows everywhere in the form of her …

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