Saturday, February 14, 2009

For the love of books on Valentine's Day

The AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) annual conference is here in Chicago: 8,000 writers, readers, teachers, publishers. It's quite a party. Today I'm speaking with Chicago writer Stuart Dybek in the Grand Ballroom at the grand old Chicago Hilton. I wanted to revisit my Chicago Tribune review of his magnificent book, I Sailed with Magellan:

A young man and a young woman squeeze into the conductor's compartment in the first car of an express El train and kiss passionately as they rock past crowded station platforms. This is a much loved scene from "Pet Milk," a short story in Stuart Dybek's The Coast of Chicago, and a moment exquisitely emblematic of Dybek's stereoscopic vision of the city's steely reality and penchant for risk-all romance. Published in 1990, The Coast of Chicago followed Dybek's first collection, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, by a decade. A book as essential to understanding life in the prairie metropolis as works by Algren, Brooks, Bellow, and Cisneros, The Coast of Chicago was resoundingly praised by critics, treasured by readers, yet woefully neglected by publishers. Meanwhile, Dybek, a true artist, continued to work slowly and intensely for another dozen years until his third cycle of interconnected short stories took shape, making publication of I Sailed with Magellan, an eleven-part saga about the evolution of a young man's sense and sensibility within the bricked grip of a big city on a great lake, a true literary event.

The meshed short stories in I Sailed with Magellan spotlight transformational moments in the lives of Perry Katzek and his family, friends, and neighbors over the course of his rough-and-ready boyhood on through and beyond high school. Perry, his younger brother Mick, their good-deal-loving, junk-collecting, Harvester plant-worker father, called Sir, and their nervous mother, called Moms, live in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood during the 1950s and 1960s. An amalgam of Polish and Mexican communities, it, like all of Chicago's ethnically defined neighborhoods, truly is a village in that everyone knows everyone else and considers everyone's business their own. Not only does Dybek masterfully evoke the intricate, singing web of urban life--the crossing paths and tangled destinies of intimates and strangers; the percussive energy generated by people at work and play; the contrapuntal mix of street action, classroom exchanges, bar talk, domestic banter and confrontation, the confessions of friends, and lovers' duets--he also aligns the longings and aspirations of his empathically rendered characters with Chicago's often forbidding, sometimes radiantly beautiful cityscape.

The ability to elucidate the complex symbiotic relationship between people and place is part of what makes the fiction of select writers so rich and resonant, so authentic and true. Dybek accomplishes this crucial feat by using music as the connecting tissue between the inner and outer lives of his characters. Music is built into the Katzek DNA and consequently plays a role in each story, whether the focus is on Perry's beloved Uncle Lefty, a derailed musician, or on Perry's brother when he falls in love with a Puerto Rican exotic dancer who performs to John Coltrane's masterpiece, "A Love Supreme."

Saxophonist Lefty, bedeviled by his combat experiences in Korea, is the book's touchstone and tragic hero. He loves to bet on the ponies at Sportsman's Park and take his young nephew around to the neighborhood taverns, of which there are way too many to get to in a day, where plucky Perry, a real ham, sings for their drinks (the boy gets root beer). Lefty also likes to play his sax on the roof of his Blue Island Avenue apartment building. When he takes his nephew up through the trap door to see the view and his neighbor's rooftop pigeon coop, he says, "Welcome to Dreamsville," and Dreamsville is, indeed, the perfect name for the city of unrequited desires Dybek so tenderly and knowingly conjures. Lefty, an artist and gambler who plays with all his heart even though he's been dealt a losing hand, initiates Perry into the holy realm of music, and, inadvertently, teaches him about the abyss into which sensitive souls can so easily fall.

In "Song," the opening story--a tale frank and edgy in its revelations of the grittiness of Chicago life, and funny and charming in its delight in our capacity for casting caution to the wind and giving in to sheer pleasure--a ragtag school marching band is so caught up in pounding out their kick-ass version of "Rock Around the Clock," they blissfully follow their unsavory, boozy, but well-connected band leader out of their Little Village enclave into forbidden territory, Douglas Park, a primarily African American neighborhood. "The El station was the kind of boundary that doesn't show up on street maps," (20) muses Perry, and sure enough he and his fellow band members are rudely awakened from their trance. Clutching his clarinet, Perry runs like crazy until he finds himself on a block where every hydrant has been opened. As great torrents of water pour into the street, a "prismatic mist of phantom rainbows" hovers in this "strange neighborhood that expressed its anarchy in water." (24) Suddenly, turf warfare and racial tension are washed away, and Perry is cleansed and redeemed. The city is full of surprises, and as Dybek summons up the wonder of the unexpected and the improbable, he achieves a low-key form of magical realism that places him in a constellation of writers that includes Joyce in The Dubliners, Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Chicago's own Leon Forrest.

Water is one of the collection's reigning metaphors, along with music, birds, and flowers (especially morning glory-festooned alley fences). In the sweetly dreamy story "Undertow," immersion in Lake Michigan reveals a secret dimension of the cosmos we call Chicago, while in "We Didn't," the lake delivers a haunting icon. Early on in the book, young Perry and Mick are supposed to be sleeping, but instead they're listening to the gruff entreaties of their beefy neighbors across the gangway. Once coitus ensues, Perry thinks that the house is creaking "as if a galleon was anchored beside our window," (27) a curious image for a young boy to concoct, but it turns out the Katzek brothers are obsessed with the stories of explorers. Mick has even made up a rambling, dirgelike song about the trials and tribulations of those who first circumnavigated the globe, an epic poem that begins, "I sailed with Magellan, . . .) (38) The brothers themselves become intrepid explorers as they embark on the arduous journey into adulthood and roam the urban wilderness, encountering new and mysterious people and places wherever they land.

Sometimes Perry is at the center of a story, sometimes he's off to the side as a sympathetic observer, a narrative fluidity that grants Dybek the liberty to invent and orchestrate a compelling cast of intriguing characters. There's Zip, the one-armed World War II vet and proprietor of the Zip Inn, who, dismayed by the "crazy, private war" in which the neighborhood gangbangers are embroiled, and angered by the intrusion of "goombahs" demanding protection money, dreams of a Wisconsin refuge in the "land of the sky blue waters," (62) just as the slogan for Hamm's beer (then the official beer of the Chicago Cubs) promises. A regular at the Zip Inn, Teo, ruined his career as a professional wrestler in Mexico for love. Joey Ditto is the feckless hit man in "Breasts," a long, sardonic, surreal, and deeply unnerving tale in which eroticism and death are inexorably entwined, an endlessly compelling paradox that Dybek frequently improvises on to profound affect.

Mick turns out to be an enigmatic and compelling character. And no one will be able to forget young, doomed Ralphie Poskozim and brainy and budding Camille Estrada, who tries to make sense of Ralphie's life in a school composition, the stars of "Blue Boy," a stealthily powerful, many faceted story about faith, the vagaries of memory, and the need to transmute life into story. The misadventures and revelations of Dybek's get-under-your-skin characters yield bittersweet tales brilliantly attuned to the confluence of inevitability and chance, natural forces and human folly.

Anger, deprivation, and the unrelenting threat of violence drive Dybek's incandescent stories, as does a rogue eroticism. The women Dybek portrays are at once tough and vulnerable, lusty and pragmatic, witty and elusive. Given the chaos and bloodshed that punctuate the lives of the men in their world, these capricious, ambivalent, and evanescent women are wise to avoid entanglement. They call the shots whenever possible, and men wait helplessly for them to bestow their favors. Joey pines for Capri, a woman he adores for her unpredictability. And Perry, a hard-knocks romantic who has witnessed more fistfights than kisses, is repeatedly thwarted in his pursuit of smart, skeptical, and independent women.

Dybek's entrancing stories replicate with piquant accuracy the social, cultural, and ethnic dynamics of one quintessential Chicago neighborhood at one particular time, and this is a tremendous achievement. But Dybek is also looking beyond the specifics of the world he so vividly evokes in an attempt to illuminate the fundamental connection between people and place, and between humankind and the earth. The word ecotone comes to mind, a term used to denote a place of transition where opposites meet, such as land and water, grasslands and forest, city and country, the border between two ethnic neighborhoods, even the plexus of reality and dream. These are zones of intense activity, conflict, and synergy, and as Perry and company avidly explore their native terrain from the industrial South Side to the bucolic North Side, Dybek homes in on just this sort of fertile ground.

In "Orchids," for instance, a dazzling story of fantasy and resilience, Perry revels in "a strip of wilderness" (176) along railroad tracks where wildlife, including a blue heron, thrive in the midst of urban clamor. Perry's favorite place is the fire truck graveyard along the Sanitary (he calls it Insanitary) Canal, a forgotten outdoor museum of city history, a place of rusted grace that inspires "a kind of reverence--not a feeling frequently encountered in Chicago." (180) And not a feeling shared by all, as Perry finds out so comically on a prom night from hell. But Perry is on to something important in his peculiar regard for this oddly hallowed place.

Perry, his brother, and his friends all possess poetic temperaments and questing souls (as well as caustic senses of humor), and are, therefore, drawn to the arts as they struggle into manhood. This creative impulse is a significant one, a potential path to a life more fulfilling than their parents', but also a way of understanding and valuing what they're so eager to leave behind. Dybek fills his painterly stories with ravishing descriptions of the hodgepodge of Chicago's streets and their quirky neighborhood characters, the chimerical lake, the white-cap-raising and trash-spinning wind, drastic weather, and dramatically slanting light to celebrate our ability to discern and be transformed by beauty however unlikely its manifestations and harsh its settings.

This receptivity to beguilement--this transcending of everyday cares and sorrows while watching frolicking children through a painted-open window in a Rogers Park apartment, or raising one's face to the pearly full moon floating above a puddled alley, or succumbing to music's dizzying embrace while driving too fast in an unreliable old car on Lake Shore Drive¬--this openness to out-of-the-blue beauty rekindles hope, inspires us to cherish memories of the dead, and induces us to seek and nurture love in spite of all the terrors that shadow our lives. This is what it is to be a human being. And this is Dybek's subject as he extracts a grand spectrum of experiences, emotions, and epiphanies from the potholed, broken glass-strewn byways of a sprawling city on a vast heartland lake in spellbinding stories that are, by turns, hilarious, stunning, and tragic, but always deeply moving, genuine, and compassionate.