Goodbye And Good Luck by Grace Paley, 1956
The magic trick:
Powerful narrative voice
I gather this was the first story Paley wrote. It definitely was her first published piece. That’s insane. Her writer’s voice is so explosive. That it was right there ready to go from the outset of her career is pretty crazy to me.
It’s a terrific story for many reasons. The voice is the most obvious thing to discuss. The narrator tells the story to her niece, so the reader is actually only listening in. It’s a neat trick to make everything feel conversational. But even without that device, the narrative voice stands out. Her language is rich and hilarious. She talks exactly like I’d imagine many New York Jewish women really talked in the 1950s. It’s just refreshing to read in print – especially from a time when that strong, speak-your-mind, slang-heavy female voice wasn’t being represented in literature.
The rollicking narration obscures the emotion of the story. You’re laughing so quick and reading so fast that you fail to notice the profound sadness of what is happening. The woman has a strong voice on paper but does she have much voice about what is happening in her life? It’s an interesting question.
And then again, as the story continues, is it even sad? Perhaps her story is honorable. Maybe even very honorable. She lives for love instead of fading into the anonymous oblivion of the regular lives she sees in her parents and family. I’m not even sure we have answers at the end. It’s sad, brave and happy and sad again. In other words: it’s a picture of how life goes for most people. Not bad for a first story! And that’s quite a trick on Paley’s part.
Finally the day came, I no longer could keep my tact in my mouth. I said: “Vlashkin, I hear by carrier pigeon you have a wife, children, the whole combination.”
“True, I don’t tell stories. I make no pretense.”
“That isn’t the question. What is this lady like? It hurts me to ask, but tell me, Vlashkin . . . a man’s life is something I don’t clearly see.”
“Little girl, I have told you a hundred times, this small room is the convent of my troubled spirit. Here I come to your innocent shelter to refresh myself in the midst of an agonized life.”
“Ach, Vlashkin, serious, serious, who is this lady?”