Sunday, 3 October 2010

Tough Women, Easy To Read

When I read that Grace Paley had been nominated as a kind of writer laureate of the State of New York, I had two reactions. (1) Let's give her a fuller look than the casual reading I've given her work so far. And (2) good God, not more awards.

Culture is on an awards binge. People who haven't been caught reading a serious book in the last two decades, if ever, pass out Medals of Freedom. Cosmetic aesthetics. Smile at the artist. Give him a free pat on the back. But don't pay the only tribute that matters: a boon of serious attention.

Now, having just read Grace Paley's first two short story collections (I have to go to the Main Library to obtain a book of poems and a novel), I think she really is worth cherishing.

The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) seems focused on her Jewish upbringing. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1972) is more ecumenical, reaching out in a surreal way to the kind of culture conflict that enfeebles America today.

"Goodbye and Good Luck" is a fine example of the former genre. Aunt Rose is telling a restless niece the real story of her single life. She had a short and unhappy tenure in her first job at a novelty store, which she quit because she couldn't have a window assignment. She does it her way, quietly but firmly. Her second job at a Jewish cultural center escalates into a mistress-ship with a priapic Yiddish actor. She doesn't whine that he's married; she savours what she can of him and waits patiently. Aunt Rose is a strong and admirable woman.

"The Loudest Voice" is a hilarious satire of Jewish kids being pressed into public school service in a Christmas pageant. Arcane disputes over the disloyalty implied by Jews acting in the pageant and the anomaly that none of the Christian kids get in the act are overridden by the question of who has the loudest voice in school. It mocks cultural exclusionism of every kind.

It's the same GP who touts herself on the jacket of her second book: "This is Grace Paley looking better than usual because she's in photographer Karl Bissinger's house, among his green thumbs and in the eye of his camera. She's a New Yorker, and has been a typist, a housewife and a writer most of her life. Right now she is also a teacher at Sarah Lawrence College. She's a somewhat combative pacifist and cooperative anarchist. She writes short stories because art is too long and life is too short. All of this is fairly accurate because she wrote it."

Shades of Philip Roth's "The Facts." Grace her own Zuckerman. Her playfulness is often bizarre and weird. But it's never not delightful. She suffers from little tics--using a neologism like "cunt-ski" to express a woman's contempt for her man defecting to blonde youth. And she has a neat way of working story titles into the narrative, as in both the title stories.

The second collection is tarter, more worried. This pacifist is definitely getting more combative, and perhaps her anarchism is a little less cooperative. "The Little Girl" is a harrowing tale of a black stud who specializes in picking up white teen girls and bedding them down before spitting them out. This time he bites off more than anyone can chew. And “Northeast Playground” is the funkiest commentary on welfare babies I’ve ever encountered.

But “The Long Distance Runner” is easily the most surreal gloss on our discontents. A middle-aged lady takes to jogging through her old Coney Island neighborhood. Which has changed, to put it mildly. She is “captured” by the blacks who now live in her old apartment. The only thing more bizarre than her captivity is the absurd distinctions we have built up around our racial differences—from Forsythe County south to Yonkers north. If only those entrenched warriors, white and black, could ingest her combative pacifism.

Paley hasn’t written a lot, but what fine takes on New York City. So read her, even if she has been beatified by the State of New York. She’s one tough-headed woman.

And, courtesy of the alphabet and the Dewey Decimal system, I ran into another tough-headed lady the same day at the Torresdale Branch. For who do you think sits next to PALEY, GRACE in the branch? PARKER, DOROTHY, that’s who.

My notion of Parker was the Algonquin round tabler who zinged lines like “Guys don’t make passes at gals that wear glasses.” Think stuff. So what a joy to read The Collected Stories (24) of DP (Modern Library, 1942).

It’s a different part of New York, for the most part—much of it prefiguring Tom Wolfe’s high melodrama of high stakes Park Avenue by almost 50 years. She is great on the pampered digging their own holes in frenzied love affairs. And the way young people were just learning to love by long distance telephone is still as fresh as an old-fashioned phone ring. And Parker is not only adept at life styles of the rich and infamous but also perceptive about the pains of moving up and down in the American class system.

“Big Blonde” is especially moving in this respect, tracing the slow slide of a gal who forgot how to be a big laugh. And “Arrangement in the Black and White” blasts an early form of radical chic right out of the drawing room.

Franklin P. Adams—the “Conning Tower” columnist who didn’t like to be conned—speaks truly in his foreword: “It seems foolish to me to write a forward to the stories, the satires, the concentrated hatreds of stupidity, pretentiousness and hypocrisy contained in this volume. Nobody can write such ironic things unless he has a deep sense of injustice—injustice to those members of the human race who are victims of the stupid, the pretentious and the hypocritical. These victims, my mathematics assures me, are in the majority. Therefore Dorothy Parker likes more people than she hates…”

What a neat parlay. Paley and Parker.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark - Hazard-at-Large, July 12, 1989

No comments: