Litstack Rec | The Coast of Chicago & Northernmost

by Tee Tate

The Coast of Chicago: Stories by Stuart Dybek

I can still recall first reading Stuart Dybek’s classic short story “We Didn’t” in Antaeus (Issue No. 70, Spring 1993), dumbstruck by the beauty of the images—the teenagers on the beach tangled in their Navajo blanket, the coconut suntan oil and lip gloss-colored lake along the beach at day’s end, when “only the bodies of lovers remained, visible in the lightning flashes, scattered like the fallen on a battlefield…” *

The Chicago-born Dybek has published five story collections, that range from the novel-in-stories, Paper Lantern: Love Stories and Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories, along with Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago, and I Sailed With Magellan; and two volumes of poetry: Brass Knuckles and Streets in Their Own Ink. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including a 1998 Lannan Award, a Whiting Writers Award, and a MacArthur Foundation Award, among many others. Considered a master of the short story, Dybek writes in a lyric prose style that combines a strong sense of place with evocative, emotionally charged and often fabulist imagery.

Dybek’s voice is famously gritty and tender, and the stories here are set primarily in the Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods of Chicago where he grew up: in the Catholic churches and butcher shops and factories and dead-end streets, all portrayed in vivid and dreamlike detail. The stories in The Coast of Chicago do not strictly adhere to traditional realism, though there is that too: the blown-out streets, as in the epic “Blight,” and the lovely spiraling memories in a cup of coffee in the classic “Pet Milk.”

But it’s the leaps of imagination that make The Coast of Chicago so believable. A classic of this collection, “Hot Ice,” is a fabulist tale that tells of a local legend, a girl “frozen in a block of ice” by her father after she tragically drowns and is rumored to be hidden in a local ice house. After years of hearing the rumors, three Chicago youths go looking for her.

The saint, a virgin, was uncorrupted. She had been frozen in a block of ice many years ago.

Her father had found her half-naked body floating facedown among water lilies, her blond hair fanning at the marshy edge of the overgrown duck pond people still referred to as the Douglas Park Lagoon.

That’s how Eddie Kapusta had heard it.

One of the best definitions of fabulism I’ve read comes from Debra Spark. In her essay, “Curious Attractions: Magical Realism’s Fate in the States,” Spark spells out what makes the premise both magical and real. The term magical realism, it turns out, is credited to Latin American critic Angel Flores, first mentioned in a paper presented at the Modern Language Association conference in 1955. As Flores found, and Spark explains, “magical realist stories often had one element that could not be explained away by logic or psychology and once the reader accepted that as a ‘fait accompli, the rest [of the story] follows with logical precision.” It turns out that fait accompli is the thing I’ve loved about the style, that the magical simply happens, and the narrative follows in accordance, and as Spark says, “adheres to logic and natural law.”

“Hot Ice” meets Flores’ criteria for magic realism—the virgin in a block of ice cannot be “explained away,” and like so many of Dybek’s stories, moves seamlessly from gritty realism to the magic of invention. Dybek shows us “…the Greek butcher shop on Halstead with its pyramid of lamb skulls,” and the stained glass window of an angel at St. Procopius, “its colors like jewels and coals,” and the fait accompli in the story’s central image, the saint trapped in a block of ice.

The Coast of Chicago also contains contemporary masterpieces like “Chopin in Winter,” and “Death of a Right Fielder,” along with a series of interconnecting vignettes and Dybek’s singular use of language and image.

Also, there is the classic “Pet Milk” (first published in The New Yorker in 1984), as perfect as a story gets. It centers on the narrator’s memory of the canned milk swirling in the grandmother’s instant coffee, an image that spawns other images, her ancient yellowed radio “usually tuned to the polka station, though sometimes she’d miss it by half a notch and get the Greek station instead.” One image leads to another, and in a structure, the writer Maud Casey brilliantly described as a spiral, like the swirling milk of the title, the images wind gradually inward, circling memory and an evening with a girl that ends in an erotic encounter in between El cars, and an ecstatic, time-traveling moment. The story expands the bounds of literary fiction, in its mix of time, memory, image, and voice, and that level of story-telling genius is what makes Dybek one of contemporary fiction’s best.

Read an interview with Stuart Dybek here.

—Lauren Alwan

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