Rediscovering gems in the short fiction (almost) halfway through Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago


So I won’t keep myself from doing this, even only for my stubbornness against the Formalist school, trumpeting organic unity, problematizing it even prior to the potential readings: for what I have went through in the earliest of February 25, 2012 include almost the first half of Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago and consummating the threshold pronouncing that I am ¾ through Saramago’s Blindness.

For Dybek, which I happened to own only two days ago, and who is being compared to Hemingway and Joyce, masters of fiction I am fond of partly because of the moods in their stories, I can argue for an initial merit in this: making me read him immediately after purchase, in contrast to the fate of Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys or Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. His stories are set in Chicago, a foreign place, unlike the very familiar Session Road or Novaliches, and they will not allow geographical distance or familiarity to get in the way of tugging the readers closer to the narratives. In the first six stories I have read from this anthology, at least so far from them, and I am respecting chronology, there is no alienation; there is connection which I gauge based on my perceptions, reactions, and engaged interrogations of the stories.

In the short, opening story “Farwell,” I see a usual plot that I think will never grow old and whose evocations of inspiration or charm will highly depend on the scripter: departures and fleeting relationships. Dybek begins the first and last paragraphs with the same word, “Tonight’” and I think this is a technique used to mark the narrator’s passing through different points of time at the moment of enunciation, showing how something past can still bring beauty when viewed from far ahead. The narrator departs with a teacher he likes, and we saw how the two of them once shared a fleeting but beautiful bond.

But what I find cute here is the manner of downplaying the separation, without much appeal to emotion, with neatness, without a sense of making a big fuss out of it: “When the university did not renew his contract, he moved away suddenly” (5). This comes before the author hinted at the proximity of where the professors used to live, “Farwell,” and saying goodbye, as if it finally arrived at the heart of its point, as if to express it could be done nonchalantly because it frequently happens anyway, as if a fact of life, inevitable.

In “Chopin in Winter,” one of the longer stories, the music element is perhaps unsurprisingly key in the elocution of the message. Michael, the narrator, shared a building and subtle connections with Marcy, the daughter of their landlady who went to stay with her mother after being impregnated by a Black man. With subplots on racism in America and the afflictions of World War II on the family of soldiers left behind , the story shows how public relations, even familial, are limited by perhaps a lack of trust and understanding, seemingly basic verbs and nouns whose weight the words themselves cannot bear when applied in real life. And more importantly, how do we negotiate whom we trust and to what extent and who we understand and how are always influenced by the circumstances circumscribing us. The bias against black people of both Michael’s mother and Mrs. Kubiac, Marcy’s mother is surely triggered by an external factor and not something that just came out. With this, it can only be inferred that Mrs. Kubiac censured her daughter with her relationship with a black guy and forced her to stay with her in the apartment. Downcast and to a certain extent, incapacitated, Marcy had to find outlet for her emotions. So we have the piano.

Michael became a passive witness of Marcy’s decision to forge ahead, leave her mother and live with her Black partner. By listening to the music she played, Michael unknowingly had an access to her expression of feelings she would not rather put into words in public, for her mother, for instance, either because of the notion that it would go purposeless anyway or a plot of escape and rebellion is already brewing and that is where much of the focus is being put on. And again, that connection she shared with Michael, beginning when they had a little talk together and when she pasted her smile on his memory. That and no other chat followed, only her piano and his growing sensitivity to its sound. And how, when she left physically, Michael seemed to have continued sensing her presence in the apartment, by virtue of the silence she had left behind, taking the place of the music she used to play.

In the one-page “Lights,” Dybek was perhaps teasing, challenging his readers. But what I think he is telling is the surprisingly optimistic, or perhaps, consoling message: Hey, we are not alone. Just as much as we can expect people to assure our safety in the dark (i.e. in the story, as we drive), we can expect that someone else stays just nearby, doing exactly what we are doing. I was inclined to think that there was some danger in messages like that – messages that are too reassuring, if not downright positive, or happy, they can make us too complacent. But in times of economic crises, subtle interracial feuds and subtler deception in the media and politics, I’d prefer to concede that perhaps even momentary assurances can be welcomed, even, as if symbolically, only a page in a series of stories.

In “Death of the Right Fielder,” Dybek seems to be downplaying death, getting rid of the drama and the philosophy and puts premium on the game, in this case, baseball. A right fielder dies, instantaneously, inexplicably, but most of all, unceremoniously. Shortly after trying to figure out the cause of his death, the narrator went on ruminating about the possibilities in baseball. How some are lucky to be great in the sport even when they are above 40 while others die soon (and find themselves buried right there in the field) when they are just 17 and perhaps proven unavailing in the face of a potentially illustrious baseball career. There is some dulcet I find in there: how Dybek seems effortless in transposing the traditional value enjoyed by one idea or event (death) onto another (baseball) – one which we usually think of as prosaic.

In “Bottle Caps,” he would just pull off some O. Henry, letting go of a dagger in the end, but not after seemingly going about a laborious plot. In this story, he introduced to me really weird brothers: one is a bottle cap collector, which is relatively still normal and acceptable; and the other, an insect grave caretaker.

These are stories you would perhaps look for after form. In the pretentious ordinariness of the narrative, there would pop out details like that. Which in second thought now, I think works exactly the opposite of O. Henry’s technique. While O. Henry is the delightfully read master of the anticlimactic; Dybek would conjure a climax when everybody least expects it: When the older one caught his younger brother getting some of his bottle caps and even threatened him, the older guy was led to the backyard and there “he could see (his) bottle caps half buried…” Perhaps pressed for further clarification, the younger kid uttered: “ I’ve been using them as tombstones, in my insect graveyard” (41).

This is making me delve deeper, truthfully, and read further with gusto and mellowed anticipation of the rest of the stories.

So for Dybek tonight, I ended with “Blight,” I think one of the more well-known among the stories, and another one from the class of longer narratives. In thirty pages, I witnessed the erratic, but in a cute way, and hence engaging fellowship, no, friendship, of four boys: Deejo, Pepper, Ziggy and David, the narrator. There were a lot of fun moments: Pepper being detested by a girl from the neighborhood he is smitten with, but most notably and laughably when Deejo wrote something Pepper asked him to be given to Linda, the girl. Deejo had an awful mistake. Weak in spelling, he wrote this:

“I dream of my arms/around your waste.”

While even if this gets spelled correctly the message is somewhat indefinitely attractive, the heavier toll was perhaps brought by the misspelling. Deejo is also somewhat a blighted writer and he used to conceive the first sentence of his would-be novel which his friends liked when he read it aloud to them. It goes: The dawn rises like sick old men playing on the rooftops in their underwear. (50)” While this amused his friends, everything that succeeded it suggested only a downfall. Most charmingly laughable is that long, long second sentence about a fighting spider and caterpillar which is obviously hardly relevant to the first sentence. Worse, the two suddenly realize the futility of their quarrel and ended up being swopped down by a sparrow.  There are several other fun moments and I believe they help in effecting in David the eventual realization he would have in the story, consummating a transition in terms of the way he perceives his home town – from Blight to Blithe.

Despite the ruggedness, the seeming lack of class, of colorful effervescence, this is the place where he had the fondest of memories with his closest pals and those are some things. Travelling through seasons, growing up and coming to terms with new, positive things. In times when we often conclude “It’s just a matter of perspective,” the good memories he shared withn his buddies have definitely shaped David’s perspective into something that leans towards the positive.

Truth to say, lately, I have been least inclined and perhaps least interested in short stories of all forms of literature, with the novel finally gaining ground and ahead with quite some steps. I enjoyed the short stories we read during my undergraduate studies, and in fact, the book I would always cite as my most appreciated, Dubliners, is a collection of short stories. And Dead Stars too, and the Death of Ivan Ilyich (although classified as a novella) and the Last Judgment, and Atwood’s Happy Endings. But with novels suddenly springing from left and right and up and down with my new found fascination with contemporary authors (Dennis Johnson, Murakami, Bret Easton Ellis and Andre Dubus III) and rekindled pining for older ones (Joyce Carol Oates ), the short fiction type suddenly lagged behind. Plays – I have Shakespeare and Miller and Beckett, and the Greek tragedies and the nonverbal element and the wily engage of dialogues to turn to. Creative nonfiction – as they well abound today in the columnists of Kule (Agrava, Precioso) and then some Jessica Zafra and Sedaris and as with their resensitization of the everyday and their revelation of the seemingly ordinary, are also constantly among my preferences. Not to say that this is one of the genres where I  more dominantly tarry as a writer. And of course, poetry, which I think responds best to the challenge of literature, condensing and displacing here and there, in a matter of lines, stanzas. But with recent rereadings of Dubliners and now, Dybek getting into the picture, the short story genre is resurrecting. Shorter and more momentary than the novel, more flexible than poetry, and still giving voices to people and their happenstances, short fiction, as I can see, is staying to tempt me to flip the page. Dybek is indeed a decisive addition to make this push and the first six stories of his more prominent anthology, with their captivation of humor and hope, and trickery and failure, in sum, everything human, are all indicating of sustaining this interest to the genre I was almost forgetting until now.

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