THE COAST OF CHICAGO
By Stuart Dybek
Knopf. 173 pp. $17.95
Stuart Dybek likes oxymorons. As in the title of the best story in this new collection, "Hot Ice," or for that matter, in the title of "The Coast of Chicago" itself. One of the characters in "Hot Ice," Big Antek, likes to tell old navy stories, and his listeners deride him by claiming he served in the Bohemian navy. Now anyone who has looked at a map of Europe or read the footnotes to Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale" knows that Bohemia is landlocked, like Chicago. But, of course, there are "dry ice" and Lake Michigan, so Dybek gets to have it both ways.
Which is the principal point about these stories: They move easily between the gritty reality of urban decay ("Blight") and a magical realm of lyricism and transcendence linked to music ("Chopin in Winter"), art ("Nighthawks," as in Edward Hopper's painting in the Art Institute of Chicago) and religion (Holy Week in "Hot Ice"). They also alternate between these four long short stories and genuinely short ones, some only a page in length, others several pages. What links them all together is place, as the title suggests, just as in his previous collection, "Childhood and Other Neighborhoods," it was time. But Dybek swims easily in the space-time continuum too, so that the young men and women who populate his Chicago coastland reappear in different guises and ages, struggling to make a life and some sense out of their conflicted feelings of nostalgia and alienation.
What they share are a common desperation and a common hope. The fatherless boy of "Chopin in Winter" sits at the kitchen table with his ne'er-do-well grandfather as he attempts to do his homework. But they are constantly interrupted by the music of a pregnant young pianist upstairs whose passionate Chopin rekindles the old man's memories and introduces the boy to a brave new world of aesthetic experience. He also discovers that the music lasts even after Marcy leaves to have her baby. "I kept catching wisps of it in the air shaft, behind walls and ceilings, under bathwater." Moreover the remembered music stirs other memories, like the wild weeping of his mother after his father was killed in the war. Just as the mazurkas and the waltzes drew his grandfather out of a sullen silence, they lead Michael into "a pure silence beyond daydream and memory, as intense as the music it replaced which, like music, had the power to change whoever listened."
Michael becomes the prototype of Dybek's heroes -- young men, mostly, whose imaginations are their only defense against urban reality. A group of teenagers living in an "official blight area" retaliates by starting a rock-and-roll band called the Blighters, and still later the brightest of them transmutes the word, via Shelley's "Skylark," into "a corner so timeless and peaceful ... that for a moment it would feel as if I'd wandered into an Official Blithe Area."
The same kinds of transformations reveal the poet and the artist lurking just below the streetwise bravado of Eddie Kapusta in "Hot Ice." He picks up a few words of Spanish from his friend, including juilota, "which was what Manny called pigeons when they used to hunt them with slingshots under the railroad bridges. It seemed a perfect word to Eddie, one in which he could hear both their cooing and the whistling rush of their wings." But Eddie also collects windows, one with a "neon-green palm tree and winking blue coconuts," another from a butcher shop "with its pyramid of lamb skulls. ... He had special windows all over the city. It was how he held the city together in his mind." Once again "blight" becomes "blithe" without ever losing its hard original shape.
So too for the religious transformations that permeate this story. Manny and Eddie walk their own via dolorosa during Lent, with stations at the prison into which Manny's brother Pancho has disappeared and at the ice house opposite, where the local virgin martyr is preserved in a block of ice. On Good Friday, exhausted and strung out on speed, they make the rounds of the local churches, and Eddie has his own dark illumination, fittingly connected with a stained-glass window, the first church window to make it into his urban collection. In the keening of the old women he also rediscovers his own grief -- "grief for the living," he calls it -- but its source eludes him, "leaving in its place nostalgia and triggered nerves." But the story doesn't end there. The last time we see Eddie and Manny, some months later, they are "rowing like a couple of sailors" on an old handcar from the abandoned ice house toward the lake, with their frozen saint "melting free between them." All the desperation and all the hope of these stories come together in those two images, gritty and magical at once.
In the shortest of the pieces, Dybek settles for snapshots, transient images that call up a moment or a personality, like the woman who tends stray cats and dogs and birds. She thus explains her refusal to give them names: "A name's what we use instead of smelling." A somewhat longer one, "Pet Milk," concludes the collection and leaves us with another inventive image that nicely closes the book's circle. As a young man of 22 and his girlfriend make love for the first time in an empty conductor's compartment of the El, he sees a teenager begin to wave from a platform as they hurtle by. "It was as if I were standing on that platform, with my schoolbooks and a smoke, on one of those endlessly accumulated afternoons after school when I stood almost outside of time simply waiting for a train, and I thought how much I'd have loved seeing someone like us streaming by." In these stories, with their homegrown version of magical realism, Dybek has managed that act of literary bilocation, and all we displaced inner-city kids -- as well as our suburban-mall cousins -- are richer for his achievement.
The reviewer is director of Georgetown University Press and the editor of "The Substance of Things Hoped For: Short Fiction by Modern Catholic Authors."