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Grace Paley, 84; writer's Bronx-tinged stories focused on working-class lives

August 24, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Grace Paley, the activist and writer whose vibrant, Bronx-accented short stories illuminated the daily trials and boisterous interior lives of working-class men and women in language that radiated humanity, intelligence and streetwise humor, has died. She was 84.

Paley died of breast cancer Wednesday at her home in Thetford Hill, Vt., said her husband, playwright Robert Nichols.

During a writing career that began more than 50 years ago, Paley published only three collections of stories, but those books -- "The Little Disturbances of Man" (1959), "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute" (1974) and "Later the Same Day" (1985) -- garnered elaborate praise from critics, fellow writers and a loyal core of readers. One noted admirer, novelist Philip Roth, said her stories offered "an understanding of loneliness, lust, selfishness and fatigue that is splendidly comic and unladylike." In 1993 Paley received the $25,000 Rea Award, which has been described as the Pulitzer Prize of short-story writing. Declaring that Paley's voice was like no other in American fiction, the judges called her "a pure short-story writer, a natural to the form in the way that rarely gifted athletes are said to be naturals."

Some critics found her stories technically uneven, but they did not consider the flaws fatal.

"Her successes are intermittent, unpredictable, often unshapely and without wholeness," Vivian Gornick once wrote in the Village Voice. "On the other hand: Paley when she is good is so good that she is worth 99 'even' writers, and when one hears that unmistakable Paley voice one feels what can be felt only in the presence of a true writer: safe."

Paley also wrote prose and poetry -- a volume of new poems will be published in the coming months by Farrar, Straus & Giroux -- but these works did not resonate as profoundly as her short stories, which compressed whole lives into a few pages. Forty-four of them were reprinted in "The Collected Stories," which was nominated for a 1994 National Book Award.

The stories were viewed as heavily autobiographical because her characters spend their time much as Paley did -- raising children and raising hell.

Most of her stories occur in a domestic arena, "a certain place," says the protagonist of "The Loudest Voice," "where dumbwaiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother's mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home." The women are unhappily married or unhappily divorced, challenged by children and greedy for love. All themes run through Faith Darwin Asbury, a recurring Paley character who confronts the vicissitudes of life as the divorced mother of two with wit, irony and political action, a "pure-thinking English major" in her youth who was "forced by bad management, the thoughtless begetting of children, and the vengeance of alimony into low practicality."

Like Faith, Paley was distracted by child-rearing and the need to make a living. She taught writing for more than two decades, mostly at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. But she also was an inveterate street-corner leafleteer and protest marcher who supported or helped found the Greenwich Village Peace Center, the War Resisters League, Women's Pentagon Action and the Feminist Press.

Sometimes she consorted with antagonistic foreign powers. During the Vietnam War she went to Hanoi to arrange for the release of some American POWs, encouraged draft resistance and was jailed several times, which she said "seemed like the natural thing to do."

She told Vanity Fair in 1998 that she was so "neurotically anti-authoritarian" that she couldn't read a simple cookbook instruction "without the furious response: 'Is that a direct order?' "

This instinct for rebellion gave her main characters a fierce vitality, which Paley could establish in a few terse lines. "My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn't right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly," says an embattled, self-mocking mother of four, whose husband is about to leave her, at the start of "An Interest in Life," one of Paley's earliest and best-known stories.

Her inventive narrative technique relied on conversation. She had an ear finely tuned to the dialects of her native Bronx, which she distilled into an aural portrait of lives rutted by disappointment and failure.

"I am a samovar already," says a lusty older woman turning down another cup of tea in "Goodbye and Good Luck," Paley's first story. "It's your little dish of lava," a woman in "The Used-Boy Raisers" says dismissively to an ex-husband ranting about the Catholic Church. "Hey! He's not altogether from the white race, what's going on? I'll tell you what: Life is going on," snaps the retired Jewish pharmacist and ex-bigot of "Zagrowsky Tells" when he notices someone staring at his black grandson.

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