Impressions of Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago

(Spoiler Alert! Chicago is A City With Lots of Immigrant History)

My first encounter with Stuart Dybek was in an Intro to Creative Course where one of our anthologies contained the last story of this collection, ‘Pet Milk.’ I had never read a story written in its form, a swirling love narrative that spins out from an instance where a man looks at the canned milk circling in a cup of coffee. It moved me in a way that few stories about lost loves ever have, and provided an ending that did not contain an epiphany, but a moment of recognition between the man and another person waiting for a train. Enjoying the story as much as I did, I soon after bought The Coast of Chicago in the hopes of devouring other stories of Dybek’s. Coincidentally, I had been working on a story based in Chicago at the time based of this great tale my abuelita told me from her early years living in Chicago. In a way, I had hoped that Dybek’s deep knowledge of Chicago would rub off on me, and would lend my work (set on the El train, a favorite reference of Dybek’s) some authenticity.

When I did get around to reading Dybek, I couldn’t manage to get beyond ‘Chopin In Winter,’ another one of my favorites from this collection (based of my 2nd and 1st complete read through). I couldn’t figure out why that was. I’d read a paragraph and then another, soon finding my mind had drifted off to weekend laundry or that night’s dinner. I was certain that it wasn’t the fault of the prose. Almost any sentence I picked out at random showed signs of superb crafting on Dybek’s part, and even though I tried to read the text under a variety of different conditions (wide awake after breakfast, drowsy afternoon, drunk), I just couldn’t maintain focus beyond two sentences, so I did what readers often dislike doing, I put it away to come back to some other time.

That other time turned out to be last week. It had been three years since I last tried to read it. Time in which, I believed, I had grown as both a reader and writer and possibly as a person. I figured that I was now ready to delve into Dybek’s world of Polish/Hispanic neighborhoods equipped with a vastly improved capacity for paying attention for more extended periods and with greater depth.

Again, I made it through the first story ‘Farwell’ stunned, as I was the first time, at Dybek’s ability to tell such fully formed stories with a mere four pages. From there I moved on to ‘Chopin In Winter,’ falling in love again with Dybek’s lyrical prose that shifts tempos along with the narrative of a boy and his grandfather, listening their neighbor practicing Chopin’s song in the apartment above them after returning home pregnant from college. Appreciation and momentum- that’s what I was gaining. Reading ‘Lights’ was fantastic, and I wonder why I hadn’t attempted to read the one-page story on my previous reading. Then ‘Death of the Right Fielder’ came, and it was like something in my brain pressed down hard on the brakes. I read through it all and when I paused to consider the eponymous Right Fielder, I couldn’t recall any info about him or his death. I tried to not let it bother me though, and me my way through ‘Blight’ and recognized the issue I was having.

See Dybek’s prose is deceptively simple. He often uses short sentences and a vocabulary simple enough for almost anyone to get, but the movement between his sentences requires intense focus on the part of the reader. Dybek shifts between metaphor and literal, the real and the imaginary, the external and internal world with no pomp and circumstance. His Chicago is fluid. Not magical realism or surrealism, but concerned more with getting the feel of the city and the neighborhoods of his youth than with a historical portrayal.

I made it through the rest of the book, particularly enjoying the parts I remember from the longer narrative ‘Hot Ice’ and my old favorite ‘Pet Milk.’ However, I know that in order to appreciate this book as I should, I’ll have to come back to it again. Three more years!

Read if you’re a better reader than I am. Read if you want to see Chicago in a way only a master storyteller can.


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