Deep in the South Side of Chicago, between the snow and the lakeshore, something romantic is stirring. Amid the bar-backs and experimental scientists and police detectives, this seems an unlikely setting for a series of love stories, such as you find in these two new collections by Stuart Dybek: “Paper Lantern” and “Ecstatic Cahoots.”
As John Cheever did with New York and Raymond Chandler with Los Angeles, Dybek is known for crafting the literary landscape of a city, in his case, Chicago. He has always been a bit of a writer’s writer. His stories oscillate between the biting and absurd writing of George Saunders and the dirty realism of Tobias Wolff. Dybek’s second collection, “The Coast of Chicago,” though now considered a classic, was at one point out of print. His follow-up collection, “I Sailed with Magellan,” helped him win a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2007.
“Paper Lantern,” as a series of love stories, navigates the minefield of romantic melodrama and lust while still touching at heartache and soulful desire. In the story “Waiting,” during an intimate moment in the rain, the narrator says, “The storm faded to a tape hiss in the background of her breathing as we kissed and she lay back with her mouth open, waiting for another kiss.”
Love and the ulterior universe are stripped down to the purest senses and moments: the sound of the rain, the expectancy of affection, and desire. The same kind of wonder extends to the rest of the world, as in the opening lines of the title story: “We were working late on the time machine in the little make-shift lap upstairs. The moon was stuck like the whorl of a frozen fingerprint to the skylight.”
The sentiment of amour and beauty bleeds into the landscape itself.
Each story in “Paper Lantern” builds around some allusive idea, with Dybek then layering over it again and again. In the opening story, “Tosca,” a fatal romance is set to the aria “E lucevan le stelle,” from Puccini’s opera. A kernel — the pivotal four lines from the aria — blends with the tension of a man waiting for a firing squad, listening to the song that once defined his love.
At worst, the sporadic leaping from allusion to allusion is distracting and pedantic, as in the story “Waiting,” where in one paragraph the narrator discusses Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wharton, Anderson, Joyce, Porter, Faulkner and Beckett. Dybek’s stories lose steam when they become so distracted and overdrawn, as in the noir American-dream-laden story “Four Deuces,” about a down-on-their-luck couple who purchase a bar. The woman, Rosie, repeatedly refers to her husband as “Frank that sumnabitch.” In a story the length of a novella, such overbearing repetition turns into caricature and slapstick, making any dramatic turn or fitful heartbreak seem unwarranted.
In addition to short stories, Dybek has published two collections of poetry (“Brass Knuckles” and “Streets in Their Own Ink”), and the line between poet and short story writer is often blurred in his new collection of flash and short fiction, “Ecstatic Cahoots.”
These stories range from several pages to simply a few lines, such as “Misterioso,” which consists solely of the exchange “ ‘You’re going to leave your watch on?’ ‘You’re leaving on your cross?’ ”
Flash fiction, as a form, calls for this kind of pun or twist to compensate for the lack of substance, as in the half-page story “Fantasy,” where a man and woman are divulging their deep sexual desires. Hers is to shave him clean with a straight razor, to which he responds, “ ‘Sounds nice,’ . . . rather than tell her there was no way in hell she was getting near him with a razor.”
Many of the stories read like prose-
poems. “Pink Ocean,” originally published in the journal Poetry, opens: “I dreamed in negative exposure of a room where night and light sound nothing alike and so are not balanced in opposition.” That songlike quality would fit well in a poem, especially the internal rhyme and near-rhyme of “night and light” with “alike.”
Stories in “Ecstatic Cahoots” fall a half-step away from a prayer or a mantra. Each piece of flash fiction requires the same faith that, after the last syllable, the words will add up into a greater and more pensive whole. Dybek’s goal in stories such as these is not to satiate, but to intrigue and inspire.
Broida’s reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in the Times Literary Supplement, Prairie Schooner and the Iowa Review.
Farrar Straus and Giroux. 207 pp. $24
Fifty Short Stories
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 192 pp. Paperback, $14