THERE AREN'T enough books by Grace Paley in the world, so a new one is cause for great rejoicing. In The Little Disturbances of Man (1959) and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1974), her two previous short story collections, Grace Paley staked out her territory: New York tenement and city block as microcosm, playgrounds aswarm with children, streets jammed with mothers demonstrating for peace, love in the kitchen when the children finally go to bed. She's our most fearlessly practical feminist. You could call her a doyenne of the American short story, but she'd probably hoot at the patrician word, for her stories are earthy, intimate, funny, astute and plebeian -- just like her voice as a writer.
In Later the Same Day, she picks up almost where she left off. As always, love and friendship are her interchangeable subjects, modified now by the passage of time. Zagrowsky the pharmacist offers this gloss on love and aging: "Inside the head is the only place you got to be young when the usual place gets used up." But Faith, who is Grace Paley's fictional alter ego, speaks for the modest generosity of middle age, when living in "passionate affection" with someone gives you room for different manifestations of love. "We talked over the way the SALT treaty looked more like a floor than a ceiling, read a poem written by one of his daughters, looked at a TV show telling the destruction of the European textile industry, and then made love" -- a Paleyesque sequence if ever there was one.
The vocabulary of critical pomposity simply will not do to describe these stories, so I'll avoid the word "epiphany" -- but there are piercing moments when Ms. Paley's lens zooms from the immediate to the universal and swiftly back again. This double vision is marvelously present in "Friends," which centers on "three opinionated left-wing ladies," Faith, Ann and Susan, at their friend Selena's deathbed. There are many woman-years of attachment behind them. "We're irritable," Susan explains. "We're angry with our friend Selena for dying. The reason is, we want her to be present when we're dying. We all require a mother-surrogate to fix our pillows on that final occasion, and we are counting on her to be that person." But losing Selena is only a small entry in the universal ledger. Meanwhile, Faith reports, the world -- "poor, dense, defenseless thing -- rolls round and round. Living and dying are fastened to its surface and stuffed into its softer parts."
Such quirkily poetic observations occur in these stories whenever honest women say what's on their minds. Often it's earth's kind beauty, glimpsed in the window box or at the grocery store: "From half a block away I could see the kale in the grocer's bin, crumbles of ice shining the dark leaves." Often, though, it is earth's destruction -- "This planet, which is dropping away from us in poisonous disgust." In "Anxiety," an elderly woman leans out of her window to address a young father on the sidewalk below: "Son, I must tell you that madmen intend to destroy this beautifully made planet. That the murder of our children by these men has got to become a terror and a sorrow to you, and starting now, it had better interfere with any daily pleasure." Grace Paley's women can speak with the largeness of matriarchs, until they suddenly break into the verbal equivalent of a buck and wing.
THEY MAY discuss in consecutive breaths the lettuce boycott and the revolutionary theater of Artaud, but they are more durably interested in the lives of the young and the old. When Faith wishes she could have another baby, her old friend and lover Jack wonders why, for "life is short and sorrowful . . . . Though of course some fools never stop singing its praises." "But they're right," Faith answers, thinking about giving the rising generation a good start. "It's very important to emphasize what is good or beautiful so as not to have a gloomy face when you meet some youngster who has begun to guess."
There are fewer little children in these stories than in the previous collections, more aging parents, more long thoughts about life. ("Hindsight, usually looked down upon, is probably as valuable as foresight, since it does include a few facts.") In "Dreamer in a Dead Language," Faith's parents are now living at the Children of Judea, Home for the Golden Ages, Coney Island Branch. Her father, a realist, hates it. Her mother "thinks she's in a nice quiet kibbutz." Her mother's sour friend Mrs. Hegel-Shtein jabs the air with her elbows and her knitting needle, cries, "Look it in the face: old age! Here it comes, ready or not." Like most middle-aged people, Faith is not ready, either for her parents to be old or to be old herself.
Many of Grace Paley's stories seem to meander. In fact they move in short straight lines from one emotional association to another, and they reward the reader who pays attention. They deserve to be reread as faithfully as poetry, these songs of durability and experience.