Commentary Magazine


The Little Disturbances of Man, by Grace Paley

City People in Tight Places
The Little Disturbances of Man.
by Grace Paley.
Doubleday. 189 pp. $3.00.

 

Mrs. Paley’s stories are about city people in tight places and rushed moments, and she tells them, from the first phrases, with great urban momentum and no rural moonshine. “My husband gave me a broom on Christmas. This wasn’t right. It wasn’t meant kindly,” she begins, sweeping out a few decades of precious, poker-faced American short story openings. Or: “Anna saw him straddling the daffodils, a rosy man in his third flush of youth. He got into Judy’s eye too. Acquisitive and quick, she screamed, ‘There’s Daddy.’”

As one husband after another showers, shaves, and permanently leaves the close nest of his wife’s affection, Mrs. Paley dwells not so much on the grief as on the resilience of the victim, the note of hilarity in her groans. In “An Interest in Life,” the deserted mother of four children hopes by virtue of her poignant condition to appear on the radio program “Strike It Rich,” but a gentleman friend reprimands her: “Virginia, for goodness’ sakes . . . you don’t have a ghost. They’d laugh you off the program. Those people really suffer . . . their lives are washed off by floods—catastrophes of God.” And for her meaner woes, “the little disturbances of man,” he recommends more accessible consolations.

A little disturbance does not mean a contemptible one, and private sorrows are not degraded in these pages to the rank of Problems. The only villain to be found is the social worker from Welfare who scribbles a dozen pages in his notebook when a family’s burden is lightened by the gift of a record player. But Mrs. Paley is not out to claim justice, or even to reform social workers, only to give grave but wisecracking accounts of urban romance and unsentimental education somewhat in the tone, though not with the evangelistic motive, of Paul Goodman.

Several of the stories take place against a Jewish background, but the writer does not make a solemn issue of Jewishness, even though it may burst excitably into a conversation she reports. In “The Loudest Voice,” told by a schoolgirl, the parents’ dilemma is: what would be a dignified way for them to talk about their children’s appearance in the Christmas play? More important, can they, the parents, avoid being seduced by the Spectacle and by the ringing sound of Meyer’s, Ira’s, and Shirley’s audible voices across the footlights’?

In “Goodbye and Goodluck,” a tale of a pleasant but interrupted liaison between a prominent actor and chubby ticket-taker in the Second Avenue Theater, Jewishness is not a question of pride or defense, but simply the landscape in which the story moves. It is hard to be sure there is such a thing as national inclination in basic matters like love and money, but I think we can. recognize the air of comfort and felicity with which Mrs. Paley endows Jewish romance. In the Jewish tradition, love and sex seem to be only one part of the ambition to make a good living, have company, eat well and regularly. They are no more dark and sinful than these other familiar appetites. The actor, Vlashkin, in his sixties but now divorced, makes Rosie Lieber a final proposition. “What a woman should be to a man, you were to me. Do you think, Rosie, a couple of old pals like us could have a few good times among the material things of this world?” Still warm and unconventional, but frank, Rosie answers, “But now, Vlashkin, you are a free man. How could you ask me to go with you on trains, to stay in strange hotels, among Americans, not your wife? Be ashamed.”

Despite this late moment of mild opportunism, Rosie’s uncomplaining affection represents Mrs. Paley’s notion about the proper stance of Woman, a rare one in American life if we are to judge from novels, movies, and business. We celebrate in our women hardheadedness, efficiency, and economy of emotion, the cool qualities of the “operator.” The open-hearted heroine of the Broadway play Two for the Seesaw is for us a problem type, defenseless and slated to lose the hero. Mrs. Paley celebrates instead an old-fashioned virtue, simple generosity, the impulse not to make reservations in one’s feelings toward another person. Her women axe not maudlin, because they rarely feel martyred or misused. They are often down, but never out.

As a female reader, I have to take pride in a woman writer not committed to the idea that men who refuse to fall in with women’s plans are necessarily childish or unhinged. A few stories are amusingly written from the point of view of resistant and self-protecting males. Dotty in “The Contest” woos her recalcitrant Freddy with love, with seeded rolls, and eventually with entry into a Jewish newspaper contest that may win him a trip to Israel if he is married to her. Though she pursues her biological destiny with all the vital force of Shaw’s heroine in Man and Superman, her impetus only elicits Freddy’s brief postcard: “No can do.”

“Why do you think she liked me?” Freddy, who has taken advantage of Dotty’s kindness, asks the reader. “All you little psychoanalyzed people, now say it at once, ‘Because she is a masochist and you axe a sadist.’” “No,” he insists, “I was very good to her,” and Dotty backs him up, appreciating his readiness to converse when she is feeling depressed.

It may be that choosing the good-natured philosophical view instead of the knowing psychological one keeps Mrs. Paley from condemning people for the way they are built. Her stories are subtitled “of men and women at love,” which implies with humorous precision that many of man’s emotions are not in the extreme center of love, but at its brink, in its vicinity; that one need not therefore diminish or excoriate them or be bitter.

The stories in The Little Disturbances of Man are of miniature importance because they never get far enough away from coffeepots, diapers, and householdly feelings; also, they are always oddly slanted to one corner, as if to say “I don’t pretend to be cosmic.” But the writing itself is extraordinarily good—intent, clear, and weeded-out as poetry, but moving in the more companionable meters of prose. I was awed by Mrs. Paley’s command of street language, including the standard four-letter words, which she uses judiciously and without affection when they seem suitable. She has also done well by the general language of literary love in the Western world by shifting it a few inches away from the romantic darkness and the gynecological light, toward the agitation of the mind, the limbs, and the funny bone.

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