Wednesday, August 17, 2016
A story that could have been a melodramatic cliche - but turns out great
Grace Paley's story Friends (1980) deservedly appears in the 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories collection, a seemingly simple and even melodramatic concept that Paley turns into a subtle and moving elegy. Three friends - Ann, Sue, and narrator (Faith) - visit their lifelong friend Selena, who is dying of cancer at an undisclosed NE location; after the visit, the friends ride Amtrak home to NY and engage in various reflective conversations - later learning that their friend had died (probably intentionally from an OD of her Rx) while they were traveling home. That's it - but Paley establishes these characters and their lives and milieu all through oblique conversational references: the daughter who died of an OD, the son who has disappeared, the children lost and out of touch, the many tragedies that have touched their lives since they came together over Manhattan playgrounds, watching their kids grow, full of hope, their clipped and abrasive tones with each other, their no-nonsense attitude toward life and death, their left-wing political engagement - all come to life, in a few phrases. At the end, one of the women, divorced and alone, accepts the advances of a man traveling alone on the train - they surmise he's a business-guy-out-of-town type, and he's clearly not her type - but her willingness to have him give her a call shows both her spunk and her sorrow. Altogether, a fine story - and typical of Paley's people and her literary tone, from what I know and remember of her stories.