“I was popular in certain circles,” the narrator asserts in the opening line of Grace Paley’s story “Goodbye and Good Luck.” It’s the perfect combination of confidence and caginess, self-inflation and self-deprecation, and it communicates an entire character in six words. In it, we hear someone who might not be as important as she thinks she is, but who is nonetheless sure to be interesting. We also hear the contrasting sounds of English and Yiddish, the new and old country, the present and the past, all falling together in a kind of compact symmetry.
“Goodbye and Good Luck” is an extended monologue—delivered by Aunt Rose, an older Jewish woman, to her niece—that reflects on the romantic entanglements of Rose’s youth:
I wasn’t no thinner then, only more stationary in the flesh. In time to come, Lillie, don’t be surprised—change is a fact of God. From this no one is excused. Only a person like your mama stands on one foot, she don’t notice how big her behind is getting and sings in the canary’s ear for thirty years.
Right away, we are in Rose’s world: a world of appetites and aging bodies, of creative insults and idiomatic speech. The voice captured here—chiding, teasing, commanding—was, it comes as no surprise, not entirely made up. “I was popular in certain circles” was something that an aunt once confessed to Paley, and the line stuck in her mind.
At the time she wrote the story, Paley was in her 30s, ill, and thus temporarily freed from responsibilities inside and outside the home. W.H. Auden, her teacher at the New School, had encouraged her to write in her own voice; Paley decided that she would also write in the voices of the many women who populated her world. The story helped launch her into prominence as a fiction writer. An editor at Doubleday liked what he read and told Paley that if she could write seven more stories like it, Doubleday would publish a collection.
The Little Disturbances of Man came out in 1959. Paley was 37 and then mostly unknown in literary circles; the book won her critical praise, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the friendship of Donald Barthelme, and various teaching jobs over the years. Philip Roth praised her language for its “rich emotional subtleties…a kind of back-handed charm and irony all its own.” She quickly became a major new voice in American fiction.
Paley published only two story collections after this: Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), which appeared 15 years after her first collection; and Later the Same Day (1985). Most of her stories are set in New York City, where she lived for almost all of her life. In the years between publications, she raised children, organized antiwar protests, and taught at Columbia and Sarah Lawrence. During these years, Paley didn’t write less; she simply refused to confine herself to the short-story form. Throughout her life, she was a committed activist and wrote pamphlets, articles, political reports, poetry—whatever the moment demanded of her. She built up a diverse body of work, not all of it literary—and therefore much of it has been neglected by those who admired her fiction.