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

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.

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“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.”

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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.

“Her short stories are a kind of New York chamber music in which the instruments are the voices of the city -- more specifically Greenwich Village, more specifically 11th Street between Sixth and Seventh,” wrote David Remnick in the Washington Post in 1985.

Paley’s story began Dec. 11, 1922. She was the youngest of three children of Isaac and Manya Gutseit (later changed to Goodside), committed socialists who fled czarist Russia in 1906. Her father taught himself English by reading Dickens and became a successful doctor in the Bronx. Her mother worked in his office during the early years of his practice.

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The Goodsides were “a typical Jewish family; they were very verbal; they expected me to be very verbal,” Paley told biographer Judith Arcana in “Grace Paley’s Life Stories,” published in 1993.

Starting when she was 11, Grace ran a newspaper in Mahopac, N.Y., where her parents had a summer home. She was a lackluster student who was, according to Arcana, “a blooming anarchist and a confirmed romantic . . . a constant frustration to her surprised and anxious parents.”

When she was 19, she took a class at New York’s New School for Social Research taught by poet W.H. Auden, who noticed that she wrote poems in British English. When he asked her why, it produced a revelation. “What he did was he pointed a way for me to be myself,” Paley told Oprah magazine this year.

She briefly attended Hunter College and New York University but never earned a degree. In 1942, she married Jess Paley, a physics graduate of City College of New York. When he was sent to the Pacific with the Signal Corps during World War II, she worked as a secretary for progressive organizations.

After the war, their two children, Danny and Nora, were born. (They survive her, along with Nichols and two grandchildren.) Jess, who was frequently away on assignments as a freelance photographer, was a reluctant and distant father, Paley told Arcana. Such men often appeared in Paley’s early stories, such as “The Used-Boy Raisers.” Paley exacted some revenge in her naming of the heroine’s former and current husbands: She called them Livid and Pallid.

She began writing short stories in 1954 or 1955 when she was sick and had sent her children to day care so she could rest. She drew her material from the many hours she had sat with other mothers watching their children play at Washington Square Park, a famous Greenwich Village meeting place. But the cultural milieu of the ‘50s, when Hemingway was king and Mailer was ascendant, was not favorable to someone who wanted to write what Paley called “kitchen dramas,” stories about the everyday conflicts and losses in the lives of Paley and her friends.

This was the era that feminist Betty Friedan would dissect in the 1963 bestseller “The Feminine Mystique,” which exploded the notion that women were only fulfilled in the roles of wife and mother. “I was a woman writing at the early moment when small drops of worried resentment and noble rage were secretly, slowly building into the second wave of the women’s movement,” Paley wrote decades later.

But there were distractions.

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In the early 1960s, Paley started working in the peace movement and helped organize the Greenwich Village Peace Center. In 1965, she began to teach fiction writing, first at Columbia University and later at City University of New York, Syracuse University and Sarah Lawrence. At the end of the decade, her first marriage ended.

In 1969, she went to Hanoi and agitated for the end of the war. In 1972, she went to Chile and attended Socialist Party meetings with Nichols, who later became her second husband. In 1973, she traveled to Moscow as a delegate to the World Peace Congress. In 1985, when her third book was published, Time magazine described her as “the friendly neighborhood radical,” who passed out leaflets every Saturday morning on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 11th Street for Women’s Pentagon Action.

When she wasn’t on the barricades, she felt “bad,” she told Time. “It comes from my terrible sense about the world. When I’m doing something about it, I can bear it somehow.”

As a result of her compulsion to do “the citizenly thing,” her total output -- three slim volumes of stories over 25 years -- occupied “less room on a bookshelf than one Robert Ludlum thriller,” a San Francisco Chronicle reviewer once noted.

Some might think it a miracle that she published at all. She was never a careerist and was haphazard about saving what she wrote. At the two-room Vermont cabin she shared with Nichols, a Vanity Fair writer found bits and pieces of stories everywhere, including the floor, and a cardboard box labeled “Current Writing. Do Not Lose” where Nichols would deposit the precious scraps. Her phone rang incessantly with invitations to read, speak, provoke.

She once tried to write a novel but thought it awful and abandoned the effort. “I could never write a novel,” she told The Times in 2007. “I can’t see extracting myself from life so much. Bob can go upstairs and close the door. Not me. I’m extremely interruptable.”

Her stories could be read as a novel, bound together by the recurring Faith, who appears in various stages of life through more than two dozen stories. The character’s personal history, politics and personality -- she is a smart, opinionated single mother who fights for her children and wants to change the world -- seem to mirror Paley’s. She is often referred to by critics as an alter ego, but the author insisted otherwise. “That woman could have existed,” Paley told Arcana, “and she could have been one of my best friends.”

Paley’s first book was published by chance. The father of one of her children’s schoolmates was Ken McCormick, a Doubleday editor, whose wife urged him to examine Paley’s stories. He read three of them in Paley’s kitchen one day and liked them so much that he told her to write seven more and Doubleday would publish them.

The result, “The Little Disturbances of Man,” received glowing reviews, including one in the New York Times that said Paley demonstrated “an all-too-infrequent literary virtue.” That collection was reissued twice by two publishers -- Viking in 1968 and American Library’s Plume Books in 1973 -- which was almost unheard of for a volume of short stories.

Her next collection, “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute,” brought darker themes and more overtly political concerns. It also offered some of her most experimental writing, including “Faith in a Tree,” a surrealistic tale that ends with an epiphany in the park, and “A Conversation with My Father,” in which nothing seems to happen except for a gentle argument between a dying father and a spirited daughter who writes unconventional stories.

Her third collection, “Later the Same Day,” followed characters from previous volumes who were older but not always wiser. Faith returns, perhaps most powerfully in “Dreamer in a Dead Language,” which finds her overwhelmed by age-addled parents. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times said some of the stories were marred by ill-defined characters and “blunt, unnecessary explication,” but James Sallis of the Dallas Morning News commended Paley’s ability to “touch so lightly on things that matter so greatly.”

In her ninth decade, she wrote poems that appeared in the New Yorker and elsewhere. As for the stories, she said, “I’ve got threads I’m still following” but wouldn’t promise that she’d complete them. As one of her characters says, “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”

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elaine.woo@latimes.com


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