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Book Reviews

Short stories of and by Chicagoans


Stuart Dybek. The Coast of Chicago. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990. Pp. 173. $17.95 (cloth).

Laurie Levy, editor. Chicago Works: A Collection of Chicago Authors' Best Stories. Chicago: Morton Press, 1990. Pp. 200. $18.95 (paper).

The Coast of Chicago, a collection of stories by Stuart Dybek, is a melodic ride through a rundown Chicago neighborhood where mystery mixes with seedy reality. Dybek, who grew up in Chicago and later worked there as a caseworker, knows the neighborhood and the people whose quirky aspirations lead them to jail or war or disappearance. The book's dedication "Until you lowly eaters of bread/will be made into angels" sums up Dybek's vision of hard times and loss mixing with the sublime and the holy.

Dybek's stories tend to divide into those which are realistic narratives (in that there is a story line) with a tone of reminiscence, presented from a young man's viewpoint, and those that are more atmospheric, poetic and surreal.

One of my favorites, "Chopin in Winter," is a relatively straightforward

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narrative of a boy who watches the decline of his roving grandfather, Dzia-Dzia, slowed for a time by the music of Marcy, the girl upstairs. Her playing of Chopin travels through the building, inspiring the old man to moments of lucidity and speech and providing the boy with a profound connection to a girl he barely knows. After she disappears, the old man slowly fails, but the boy continues to hear the music: "I kept catching the wisps of it in the air shaft, behind the walls and ceilings, under bathwater .... And when the music finally disappeared, its channels remained, conveying silence. Not an ordinary silence of absence and emptiness, but a pure silence beyond daydream and memory, as intense as the music it replaced, which, like music, had the power to change whoever listened."

This captures the essence of Dybek's work: to record the seemingly ordinary while revealing the surrealistic context, the mystical, the unapparent. He shows what lies in the silence beneath daily actions.

While my preference is for the more heavily plotted stories, the surreal ones hold marvelous images, such as that of the kiss that travels Chicago: "A kiss crosses the city, revolves through a lobby door into a rainy night, catches a cab along a boulevard of black glass, and, running red lights, dissolves behind the open fans of wiper blades . . . ."

Although Dybek's stories evoke places and times in Chicago, they go far beyond the picturesque or historical to a mythical vision where human interaction is based upon symbol and connected through imagery. It is not a place of soullessness, and everyone there is infused with grace.

Dybek's writing runs counter to the trend of many contemporary stories, in which flippant, in-joke minimalism relates the meaninglessness of urban life. Some examples of this minimalist prose can be found in Chicago Works.

Chicago Works: A Collection of Chicago Authors' Best Stories anthologizes 22 stories, all published previously in magazines and books. It offers a quick overview of Chicago story writing, though many authors are noticeably absent (among them Maxine Chernoff, Karen Lee Osborne, Paul Hoover, Sharon Solwitz and Sharon Sloan Fiffer). There seems to be little to unify these stories, other than the fact that the writers all lived, at some point, in Chicago. The stories do not necessarily concern Chicago, and they certainly prove that there is no one "Chicago style." The book lacks biographies of the authors and offers no explanation of why these stories were chosen as the "best" of their authors' works or of why these authors were selected instead of others.

The collection does include some fine stories. I found the best of these to be "Risk" by Charles Dickinson and "What We Learned in Vietnam" by James Park Sloan.

"Risk" is a tightly written, blackly humorous tale of marital infidelities among a group of men and women playing the game Risk. With clean, direct prose, Dickinson tells us who these players are, how they connect and what they are up to. While not exactly friends, these players know each other intimately. There are winners and losers and some who are both; there are webs of gossip and subtlety. Each player has a secret; each betrays or expects betrayal. Yet there is a sort of innocence to their game-playing, a guilty searching for something more.

The Coast of Chicago and Chicago Works both hold some of the best of current storywriting. . . . Sampling these collections is like walking down the street and finding a familiar face

The character descriptions indicate much in a few clear sentences. Of Alice, for instance, Dickinson writes: "She lives with a man she has known for seven months, in a rented farmhouse on a hundred acres of land .... He loves Alice, but she still meets another man on the sly. Half her appointments and reasons for being away from home are fabrications. This other man treats her like a child, making fun of the gaps in her knowledge, hurting her feelings, which she perversely enjoys. It is a counterpoint to the sweet man at home. Alice plays black."

I liked Sloan's "What We Learned in Vietnam" for its painful directness. This blunt story rips the face off our need to give meaning to the war in Vietnam. The plot begins when Huk, a veteran, is called by a man who saw Huk give his first-and-only testimony at a veterans' conference. The caller, also a Vietnam vet, requests money for a trip to St. Louis to attend his father's funeral. With an uncertainty that grows into paranoia, Huk agrees to meet with him. He discovers that the veteran is simply looking for answers, for the lessons learned from the conflict. Huk concludes that the man is pathetic: "He watched Stallings rummage through the pamphlets. No gun, no dope. Just veteran shit. The poor bastard, he spent his life wandering around with an armload of veteran shit. The war was going to be the only thing that ever happened to him in his life."

Other strong stories were "The Rock Garden" by Mary Gray Hughes, about an elderly woman grateful for, yet frightened by her fortunate life; "The Beach Umbrella" by Cyrus Colter, in which a man achieves one moment of fitting in; Anne Brashler's "He Reads to Her," about a woman struggling with the failure of her body; "The Journal of a Wife Beater" by Harry Mark Petrakis, a funny tale of a husband who realizes his wife's sovereignty and strength; and "From Treemont Stone," Angela Jackson's lyrical and meandering vision of a black neighborhood.

The Coast of Chicago and Chicago Works both hold some of the best of current storywriting. Illinois readers will appreciate the bonus that a number of these stories feature places and people recognizable to anyone who has lived in or gone to Chicago. Sampling these collections is like walking down the street and finding a familiar face.

Books recently received worth mention

Norbert Blei. Chi Town. Granite Falls, Minn.: EUis Press, 1990. Pp. 384. $19.94 (cloth).

Becky Bradway is a fiction writer who has published stories in nationally circulated anthologies and literary magazines. Her work has appeared most recently in American Fiction Number One (Birch Lane Press), Other Voices, Sequoia: The Stanford Literary Magazine and Laurel Review.

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