Monday, January 10, 2011

Grace Paley

At the recommendation of our brother-in-law, I've been reading a short story collection by Grace Paley called Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and they are so fresh and hilarious (and sad, duh). The stories are interconnected vignettes from the lives of working class New Yorkers in the 1950s. I wanted to share this excerpt from the story "Distance," which is one of the most surprising things I've read in a long time. It moves so fast you almost miss it, but I laughed so hard when I realized what had actually happened here (it was a dark laugh, duh). The scene is breakfast, and an overprotective mother (named Dolly) disapproves of the girl (named Ginny) her son (named John) has been dating.
"Mother," he said, "I am going to ask Virginia to marry me"
"I told you so," said my husband and dropped the funnies on his bacon.
"You are?" I said.
"I am, and if God is good, she'll have me."
"No blasphemy intended," I said, "but He'll have to be off in the old country fishing if she says yes."
"Mother!" said John. He is a nice boy, loyal to his friends and good.
"She'll go out with anyone at all," I said.
"Oh, Mother!" said John, meaning they weren't engaged, and she could do what she wanted.
"Go out is nothing," I said. "I seen her only last Friday night with Pete, his arm around her, going to Phelan's."
"Pete's like that, Mother," meaning it was no fault of hers.
"Then what of last Saturday night, you had to go to the show yourself as if there wasn't no one else in the Borough of Manhattan to take to a movie, and when you was gone I seen her buy two Cokes at Carlo's and head straight to the third floor to John Kameron's"
"So? So?"
"...and come out at 11 p.m. and his arm was around her."
"...and his hand was well under her sweater."
"That's not so, Mother."
"It is so, and ell me, young man, how you'll feel married to a girl that every wild boy on the block has been leaning his thumbs on her little titties like she was a Carvel dairy counter, tell me that?"
"Dolly!" says Jack. "You went too far."

...[here she launches into a litany of Ginny's other transgressions]...

"Oh Dolly," says my husband, and plops his head into his hands.
"I'm going, Mother, that's libel, I'll have her sue you for libel," dopey John starts to holler out of his tomato-red face. "I'm going and I'll ask her and I love her and I don't care what you say. Truth or lies, I don't care."
"And if you go, Johnny," I said, calm as a dead fish, my eyes rolling up to pray and be heeded, "this is what I must do," and I took a kitchen knife, a bit bluny, and plunged it at least an eighth of an inch in the fat of my heart. I guess that the heart of a middle-aged lady is jammed in deeper that an eighth of an inch, for I am here to tell the tale. But some blood did come soon, to my son's staring; it touched my nighty and spread out on my bathrobe, and it was as red on my apron as a picture in an Italian church. John fell down on his knees and hid his head in my lap."

Then the story moves on. I keep being struck by Grace Paley's rhythm in these stories (not a quality I tend to notice in stories, for the record). But between the jerky, jumpy way her characters speak slang, and the peculiar way the action moves, coming on quickly and receiving little consequence or attention, and then slowing without the reader noticing, the book of interconnected stories has reminded me of some of my favorite albums. It's entirely unlike anything I've read. Highly recommended!

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