Paley's delicate stories ring with voices from the Bronx

Later the Same Day, by Grace Paley. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux. 211 pp. $13.95. Grace Paley is an experience. And you get her only in small doses, which is what makes it fun.

Her first slim collection of short stories came out in 1959: ``The Little Disturbances of Man.'' Definite ripples.

Another small book of short stories, in 1974: ``Enormous Changes at the Last Minute.'' Definite waves.

Patiently, more waiting. Nineteen seventy-eight, 1980, 1982. She must be polishing.

Last week they were ready. Seventeen new stories, very delicate, very gourmet tidbits of essential Grace Paley called ``Later the Same Day.'' And it is, no mistake, an event.

She has a voice all her own: light, funny, agile, sad-ironic, sweet-ironic, covering-up-desolate, incredibly phonetic.

So she helps you hear others' voices, too -- everything there is in the Bronx. With her loving heart and hearing ear she flits and pauses and swoops along the neighborhood benches and steps, among the grocery stalls, breakfast tables, chairs in the front room. This is life in the little places of New York, and life in the hearts of good, earnest, bewildered people trying to cope with today's oversized era:

One day in the Bronx two small girls named Edie and Ruthy were sitting on the stoop steps.

They were talking about the real world of boys. Because of this, they kept their skirts pulled tight around their knees. . . .

Ruthy said, anyway, she liked to play with those boys. They did more things . . . ran around the block a lot, had races, and played war on the corner. Edie said it wasn't that good.

Ruthy said, Another thing, Edie, you could be a soldier if you're a boy.

So? What's so good about that?

Well, you could fight for your country.

Edie said, I don't want to. . . .

Why, Edie, why?

I don't feel like.

Why, Edie, how come?

. . . I don't always have to say what you tell me. I can say whatever I like.

Yea, but if you love your country you have to go fight for it. . . . Even if you get killed, it's worth it.

Small girls like Ruth grow up to be tireless supporters of causes, and causes are felt everywhere in ``Later the Same Day,'' as in all of Paley's work and life. Peace, a nuclear freeze, feminism, ``the mistake of the World Trade Center,'' civil rights, any kind rights. (``All writing is political,'' she once said.)

Along with their politics, characters in these stories (mostly women) have divorces and lovers and every kind of bum deal. They rear children and live in fear of what they'll hear of them next. A death is easier to take than most of what their kids do.

Such strident, could-be tiresome topics Paley makes fresh. The sorrows of the earthbound seem to thin out as she dances up ahead of you doing small, deft conjuring tricks with words; dropping out a center or a side to see if you'll leap with her over the poetic void; playfully juxtaposing sudden and unlikely thoughts, looking back with a hint of mischief to see if you're still coming.

If you've got any heart in you at all, of course you are.

Dayis Muth is a free-lance reviewer living in Boston.

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