Paula Fox looks back on a wayward life

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As an adult writer, Fox received acclaim for her subtle prose and her deep insights into the collapse of white collar security in the `60s and `70s. A nasty bite from a cat in “Desperate Characters” mirrors a plague of violence and decay that has spread through New York City. “The Widow’s Children” finds a family at war as a husband and wife prepare for a trip to Africa.

“Everything is always on the edge of crisis and sometimes whole countries, like Libya, tumble into them,” Fox says. “There’s a certain amount of tyranny in all of us to some extent, and in some people it’s much more developed than in others. It’s a different balance which makes us all different. But we all have the same qualities and essence. There’s a certain tendency toward bigotry, cruelty, absolutism, stupidity. It doesn’t take over in a lot of us. … We know it’s there. People don’t want to know that.”

But by the 1990s her work was forgotten by all but her most determined admirers. One of them, fortunately, was Franzen. The future author of “Freedom” and “The Corrections” came upon “Desperate Characters” while at the Yaddo writers colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1991. A few years later, he wrote an essay for Harper’s magazine that worried about the state of American fiction and called “Desperate Characters” an overlooked masterpiece that provided him “company and consolation and hope in an object pulled almost at random from a bookshelf.”

Author Tom Bissell, then a paperback editor at W.W. Norton, read the essay and wondered why he hadn’t heard of the novel. He looked in stores and had no luck, not even among the epic stacks at the Strand in Manhattan’s Union Square, a veritable lost and found for literature. He finally got in touch with Fox, who sent him one of her copies; Norton reissued all of Fox’s adult novels, with introductory essays by Franzen, Lethem and other writers.

“I think Paula obliterates the distinction we make between `minimalist’ and `maximalist’ writers,” Bissell says. “Paula, whose prose is quite spare but never feels `minimal’ or skeletal at all, shows us that all so-called minimalism is good old-fashioned carefulness in narration.”

Cruelty inspired some of her best work, but also robbed her gift for invention. In the mid-‘90s, she was visiting Jerusalem when she was attacked by a mugger, thrown to the ground and hospitalized. Fox says she can still write, but only nonfiction. She has published no novels since being injured, instead writing “Borrowed Finery” and “The Coldest Winter.”

“Another quarter of an inch and I would have been dead,” she says of her head injury. “It took me a long time to write a few pages of `Borrowed Finery,’ then as I went on it took less and less time and by the time I came to `The Coldest Winter,’ I didn’t have so much trouble.

“There are moments one is so grateful for certain things. For instance, I thought the other day of the water that comes out of our faucet, for a second I felt an immense social gratitude toward the water itself. You see the difference between your situation and the world’s, in one form or another. I wasn’t congratulating myself. I didn’t feel complacent about it at all, not consciously.

“In any event, I was so relieved to think about the water system in Brooklyn.”

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