A LONG A DIAGONAL LINE southwest from Chicago's Loop lies a vast terra incognita once populated almost completely by Slavic groups which has been changing over to black and Latin during the past couple of decades. Chicago has had neighborhood laureates in the past -- James T. Farrell, who wrote of the south-side Irish; Gwendolyn Brooks, the fine poet who sings of the black south side; Nelson Algren, whose people are the Poles of the near-northwest side; and Saul Bellow, who has written so well about the west-side Jews. But nobody has come forward to speak for that mixed patch surrounding Douglas Park on the southwest side. That is, nobody until now. For here is Stuart Dybek to tell you what it is like to grow up there -- the sights, the sounds, the smells, all of it -- and this volume of his stories constitutes as impressive a debut as has been made by any of the many good writers who have come out of that "dark city," Chicago.
Of them all Dybek seems most like Nelson Algren. Although it may simply be a similarity of subject matter, I was reminded again and again while reading Childhood and Other Neighborhoods of the tough, beautiful stories in Algren's The Neon Wilderness. "Blood Soup," Dybek's tale of an odyssey through decayed, changing blocks and alleys by Stefush and his brother Dove to find a jar of duck blood for the old-country remedy which they are sure will restore their dying grandmother, brought back to me Algren's frequently anthologized classic, "The Night the Devil Came Down Division Street." Sterndorf, the title character of the "Neighborhood Drunk," could well be a first cousin to Drunkie John in The Man with the Golden Arm. And the high-schoolers yearning after culture in "The Long Thoughts" and "Sauerkraut Soup" might be Bruno Bicek's kids had Bruno only gone straight at the end of Never Come Morning.
Yet there are also elements here that would probably seem altogether alien to any reader of Algren. There is a kind of transcendental, magical quality to certain of the stories "The Palatski Man," "Visions of Budhardin," and "The Apprentice" -- that is quite new to Chicago writing. It is distinctly Eastern European in flavor. The closest I can come by way of comparison would be the early stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer with all their dybbuks and devils. Yet after all, why not? Singer is a Polish Jew, after all. There was probably a good deal more interchange between the ghetto culture and that which surrounded it in Singer's day than is remembered now or perhaps was realized at the time. i
None of this, however, is to deny the distinctive nature of Stuart Dybek's own writing. He has his own voice. It emerges more and more clearly the deeper one reads in this collection. If he writes, for the most part, about children and adolescents here, it is always with an adult's understanding and sympathy. He speaks for the losers and victims, telling a teen-age girl's wasted life in "The Wake," and of the terror that is the daily bread of one boy's existence in "Horror Movie." There is anger, too -- anger at the ignorance and brutality that has trapped those he writes about in their separate miseries, and anger at the system that keeps them there. This last is especially evident in "Charity," in which the unnamed narrator, a social worker for the state, takes us on a tour through his case files and gives reality and some dignity to the squalid lives of his "clients." It is a harrowing story, absolute true, I'm sure, to the author's experience, and it is the best of its kind I have read since Saul Bellow's "Looking for Mr. Green."
But there I go again, comparing and categorizing. There is a great urge for anyone who knows the literature of Chicago to see it as a whole, to try to tie it all together. The place has given so little encouragement to its writers and yet has produced so many fine ones that it is almost tempting to conclude that it is by denial and frustrations, rather than generosity and help, that real writers are made. They have had to struggle similarly, and as a result there are certain similarities to their work -- qualities of anger, cynicism, and sometimes a strident tone. Theirs is a tradition of deprivation and resentment.
And how does Stuart Dybek fit into this tradition? Perfectly, as a true inheritor, one who stands tall in a direct line of succession with Chicago's best. He is the real article, this guy, the McCoy, and if he is not ruined by neglect, drink, academic ennui, or the thousand other nagging miseries that sap a writer's talent, then he can be as good as any of the rest. It says here he is working on a novel. I am ready with my ten bucks to buy it the day it appears.