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Grace Paley's narrative voice at its best is totally distinctive--a New York City landmark, if not quite a national treasure: the social intimacy; the artful blend of naivet‚, lyricism, and comedy; the comfortable mastery of both Yiddish-ized English (in older characters) and jargonized political English (in younger ones). And in this collection, as always, the stories involving Paley's alter-ego, Faith, are the standouts--with faultless dialogue, unforced sympathy, and a complete lack of maudlin cant. In ""Dreamer in a Dead Language,"" Faith visits her parents in a Brighton Beach retirement hotel. In ""Friends,"" one of Faith's friends is dying--so the familiar group of pals (including Faith) visits this unfortunate woman, whose daughter (now absent) has already provided the woman with a living death. (But, on the train ride home, when one of the friends starts to analyze the dying woman's conversation, another breaks in: ""I don't think it's right to complain about the dying or start hustling all their motives into the spotlight like that."") In both these small masterpieces, and elsewhere, Paley's real subject-matter--the concern that pulses behind each carefully (but unfussily) chosen word--is the strength of group support, the comfort taken from informal communities: how, with all the pain and normal terror of urban life, do we manage to live? Somewhat more problematic, if often no less involving, are the stories that focus on the explicitly political involvements of Faith and her friends: they go to China; they picket a drug-store owner who has been unfriendly to blacks (only to learn that he is the tragically devastated father of a schizophrenic daughter); they confront the nouveau-radicalism of their children--or the dangerous social decay of the South Bronx. And here, as in her other work, Paley writes with generous, freewheeling honesty, even with a self-mocking candor that seems to recognize the sentimental limitations of Faith's old-fashioned, somewhat tunnel-visioned liberalism. Yet, even when these political dreams are clearly exposed, shown to be hollow posturings or wistful illusions, Paley doesn't really confront the serious, hurtful side of well-meaning, misguided politics: Faith and her friends remain slightly romanticized, virtuous even in their errors, on a rather slippery borderline between charming and pathetic. Still, despite the occasional aftertaste left by this subtle dilemma in Paley's more political stories, her sure craft and her seductive open-heartedness nearly always carry the day--making this an important collection, full of elegance and feeling.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1985
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux