Chicago has a long tradition of producing fine writers who use the city as their literary landscape. Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, and The odore Dreiser, among others, belong to this tradition. Stuart Dybek, while drawing heavily on the city for his settings, characters, and images, departs from the tradition with his dreamlike portrayal of life in a postmodern world. Some critics have identified his work with Magical Realism and have suggested a connection with Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. Dybek himself reports that after he wrote some of the early stories included in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods he began to read the works of Franz Kafka and Gabriel García Márquez.
In addition to exploring the intersection between dreams and reality, Dybek has pioneered the genre sometimes known as “sudden” or “flash” fiction. These stories are sometimes also called “short short” stories; sudden fiction can be just a few paragraphs long, and such stories are never longer than three pages. Consequently, readers of sudden fiction often find themselves in the middle of a situation well under way, a situation that will end but not conclude. Some of the prose poems in Dybek’s poetry collection Brass Knuckles could fall into this category. The Coast of Chicago also includes several very short stories.
Many of Dybek’s stories draw on his experiences growing up in a Polish-Latino neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. His characters often have Polish surnames, attend Catholic churches, and carry with them the culture and mythology of Eastern Europe. Even when his stories are not overtly about the immigrant experience, their settings are rich with ethnic sounds, aromas, and sights. Churches frequently appear in the center of the landscape.
Dybek often places his characters in moments of transformation. Frequently this takes the form of a coming-of-age story, especially in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. In a 1997 interview with Mike Nickel and Adrian Smith, Dybek says that he is always “looking for some door in the story that opens on another world.” For some characters, this can be the world of adulthood; for others, it can be an entry into the world of magic or death. The entry into a different world can be a transformative moment for his characters, as well as for his readers.
Childhood and Other Neighborhoods
The eleven stories of the collection are about coming of age. With his title, Dybek deliberately suggests that there is both a time and a space to childhood; that is, he sees childhood in the same way one would see a neighborhood, as a place where interconnected people live out their lives, bounded by streets, houses, ethnicity, and religion. The main characters in this collection are generally young people, often second- or third-generation Poles making their homes in Chicago. Dybek himself identifies the subject of the collection as “perception,” reminding his readers that children perceive the world in ways that are different from the ways adults do. For many of the characters in this book, their moment of transformation comes when they leave the familiar streets of their own neighborhood and venture out into the world at large. Sometimes these adventures end tragically, sometimes humorously. Often the world outside the neighborhood is a world infused with magic or horror.
The opening story of Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, “The Palatski Man” is about a young girl, Mary, and her older brother John. The story opens on Palm Sunday and continues to use religious iconography and imagery throughout. At the center of the story stands the nameless Palatski Man, a vendor who dresses in white and sells taffy apples and palatski, a confection of wafers and honey. There is a strangeness to this treat; Mary has never seen palatski sold anywhere else. For Mary, eating the palatski reminds her of Holy Communion, an image that recurs later in the story.
John and his friend Ray Cruz are fascinated by the Ragmen, who traverse their neighborhood collecting rags. John tells Mary about following a Ragman for a long way and discovering the place where all the Ragmen live. Ray and John are discovered by the Ragmen and become separated. Later, when John calls Ray’s home, Ray denies that the adventure ever happened, and John is unable to locate the Ragmen’s camp again. Later, John and Mary follow the Palatski Man and find themselves once again at the Ragmen’s camp. In a mystical, frightening ceremony, the young people partake of a kind of Eucharist consisting of taffy apple syrup and palatski, which tastes surprisingly bitter. That night, Mary discovers that John has not eaten his portion. The story closes strangely with a scene that could be a real event, a vision, or a dream. The Palatski Man comes for Mary, and she knows that she must go with him. Dybek reports that he wrote this story while listening to the music of Polish composer Zoltán Kodály. The music suggested the strange, Eastern European images. There are also undercurrents of the Persephone myth, and readers should remember that this myth was a subject of a poem in Dybek’s Brass Knuckles. In Greek mythology, Persephone eats pomegranate seeds offered her by Hades, the ruler of the underworld. As a result, she is bound to stay with him for six months of the year. Likewise, Mary’s ingestion of the minute wafer given to her by the Palatski Man makes possible the final scene.
The Coast of Chicago
The Coast of Chicago contains both longer stories and very short stories, intertwined and interconnected by theme and image. Some reviewers suggest that the very short stories are lyrical in nature and may be autobiographical. Again, Chicago provides the setting for the stories, and again, Dybek has said that he listened to music, jazz this time, as he wrote the stories. Many of the stories in the collection have a dreamlike, legendary quality to them. Art and music figure in many of the stories. For example, “Nighthawks,” itself a minicollection of tales within the larger collection, uses Edward Hopper’s painting by the same name as its starting point. Likewise, “Chopin in Winter” draws on the music of the Polish composer. In all, the stories are often elegiac, somber, nearly hallucinatory. Again, Dybek seems most interested in showing the reader the way characters and settings change, often subtly, often before the reader’s very eyes.
Appearing in the Winter, 1997-1998, issue of Ploughshares, “Ant” is a sample of Dybek’s very short fiction and an example of the blend of fantasy and realism characteristic of many of his stories. In addition, the story features entry into another world and then back into the ordinary one. The story opens with Martin lying on a blanket under a tree with his lover. When an ant begins to drag him by his toe, Martin remembers stories read to him when he was a boy by his Uncle Wayne. His uncle, a veteran of an unnamed war, acted out the stories after reading them to Martin. The most memorable for Martin was “Lonigan and the Ants.” His uncle, who had pretended that he was an ant and Martin was Lonigan, had begun to pursue him. All that saved the frightened Martin from the mad pursuit by his uncle was the reminder that Lonigan does not die, and the ants do not win; the “authority of the story” is enough to change his uncle’s actions. Dybek seems to be playing with the boundaries of storytelling here. In the larger story, he exerts authority over his own story and writes a version in which one ant does win. Eventually, an ant works its way up Martin’s back, grabs hold of his belt, lifts him off the ground, and carries him away.
Play: Orchids, pr. 1990.
Poetry: Brass Knuckles, 1979; Kiddie Corner, 1981; Streets in Their Own Ink, 2004.
Short fiction: Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, 1980; The Coast of Chicago, 1990; The Story of Mist, 1993; I Sailed with Magellan, 2003 (novellas).
Cook, Bruce. “Walks on the Southwest Side.” Washington Post Book World (January 13, 1980): 1-2.
Dybek, Stuart. “An Interview with Stuart Dybek.” Interview by Mike Nickel and Adrian Smith. Chicago Review 43 (Winter, 1997): 87-101.
____________. “Thread.” Harper’s 297 (September, 1998): 34-37.
Gladsky, Thomas S. “From Ethnicity to Multiculturalism: The Fiction of Stuart Dybek.” MELUS 20 (Summer, 1995): 105-118.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Lyrical Loss and Desolation of Misfits in Chicago.” The New York Times Book Review (April 20, 1990): C31.
Lee, Don. “About Stuart Dybek.” Ploughshares 24 (Spring, 1998): 192-198.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Shapard, Robert, and James Thomas, eds. Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories. Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, 1986.
Ward, Robert. “A Review of Childhood and Other Neighborhoods.” Northwest Review 18 (Fall, 1980): 149-157.
Weber, Katharine. “Windy City Dreaming.” The New York Times Book Review, May 20, 1990, 30.