Friday, July 31, 2009

The Coast of Chicago: Stories by Stuart Dybek

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

· Paperback: 192 pages
· Publisher: Picador; 1 edition, 2004
· Price: $14.00
· ISBN-10: 0312424256
· ISBN-13: 978-0312424251

I’ve experienced that rare pleasure of hearing Stuart Dybek read his work—in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he is a sometime adjunct professor at Western Michigan University, and so sometimes, not at all often, has read to a large and hungry Kalamazoo audience, myself among them. That was poetry. Good stuff. Really good stuff. And so picking up this collection of stories about my favorite city, Chicago, and Dybek’s hometown, too, I knew I would be in for a street wise treat. Oh yeah.

Fourteen stories, and if you know anything about Dybek at all, you will know he is surrounded by awards and an otherwise impressive publishing history, so no need to go there. He’s proven goods. I’ll offer simply my personal perspective and experience on reading this collection. And so, indeed, it resonated with me. Dybek, like me, comes from a richly ethnic background. In his case, he is a second-generation Polish-American, growing up in Chicago neighborhoods, southern side of that great city. Whereas I have a father who is a visual artist, so influencing me to be visual in my own writing, Dybek’s second art love is music—jazz, specifically—and so for him, that second art comes through in obvious and less obvious ways. Here, too. Quite a few of these stories intertwine music. Music becomes something of a character itself (“Chopin in Winter”), or else it serves as background, or it is fabric of the words, adding a jazzy rhythm to his sentence structure, a bop and a bounce to his choice of expression. Nice.

The collection is an interesting mix of traditional sandwiched with flash fiction. The flash pieces reminded me of Dybek’s poetry. Poetry in prose, nearly. Because Dybek’s style (see note above on musical influence) is very lyrical. There’s something improvisational about his writing, yet carefully so. A great jazz artist doesn’t really improvise at all; he or she dips into that vastness of musical experience and freely lifts from it and into light. What is surprise to others is old blood to the maestro.

“A kiss crosses the city. It rides a glass streetcar that showers blue, electric sparks along the ghost of a track—a track paved over in childhood—the line that she and her mother used to take downtown.

“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.

“Rain spirals colorlessly out of the dark, darkens all it touches and makes it gleam.

“Her kiss crosses the city, enters a subway tunnel that descends at this deserted hour like a channel through an underground world. It’s timeless there, always night, as if the planet doesn’t turn below the street. At the mouth of the station stands a kid who’s gone AWOL and now has nowhere to go, a young conga drummer, a congacero, wearing a fatigue jacket and beating his drum. He has the pigeons up past their bedtime doing the mambo.”
(page 105)

These are stories that put you into the unprettified ethnic neighborhoods that were, are, Chicago. The smells are here, the tastes, the mix of languages, the music, the blend of humanity. Here the city kids and the first generation immigrants, the junkies and winos and ex-cons and their corrupt cops. Here, too, are stories about nothing, just the sense of being there, and so, stories about everything you need to know to share the experience.

Dybek is a master of language, whatever medium he chooses—poetry or prose. He blends his arts, as all art should be a blend, all from the same fountainhead. He is visual artist, too, with one paint stroke:

“The blue, absorbing shadow would deepen to azure, and a fiery orange sun would dip behind the glittering buildings. The crowded beach would gradually empty, and a pitted moon would hover over sand scalloped with a million footprints. It would be time to go.” (page 45)

Just don’t go before acquainting yourself fully with the work of Stuart Dybek, and this collection is an excellent starting point.

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