Following Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago is Stuart Dybek’s second book of fiction. Dybek is also a poet, which may account for the evocative imagery of the latter work, a collection of seven stories interspersed with seven vignettes. The setting of the stories and some of the vignettes is Chicago, especially its ethnic neighborhoods and their worn-out industrial environs. The major stories in the collection—“Chopin in Winter,” “Blight,” “Nighthawks,” “Hot Ice,” and “Pet Milk”—feature young characters (mostly male) saturated with their environment as they try to define their destinies. Each of these stories uses structural images to help clarify its meaning.
The narrator of “Chopin in Winter” is Michael, a boy living in a somewhat seedy apartment building in Chicago. His attention is focused on Marcy Kubiac, a young pianist who has returned pregnant from New York City to her mother’s apartment, and on Dzia-Dzia, his wandering uncle. Dzia-Dzia is recuperating from his travels in the apartment of Michael and his mother; he spends his evenings soaking his feet in hot water. The time is one winter during World War II, in which Michael’s father has been killed. Every night Marcy plays Chopin on her piano upstairs, and every night, while Michael practices his penmanship on the kitchen table, Dzia-Dzia follows the music that vibrates the ceiling and walls, pretending to play it himself on the table as he schools Michael in Chopin’s Preludes and Nocturnes.
Michael’s skill in penmanship and in understanding the meanings of words improves as he observes the interplay between his uncle and the music, between the building itself and the music. Chopin’s pieces become a metaphor for longing and for deriving value from a problematic human world.
Marcy and Dzia-Dzia have returned to their families to gather the strength they need to set out again—Dzia-Dzia toward death, like Michael’s father, and Marcy toward a family of her own. She eventually creates this family by having her baby on Chicago’s South Side while her mother searches for her as far away as New York.
The heat associated with Michael’s home and the steam associated with his uncle suggest life and passion, sometimes suffocating and obscuring, just as the image of snow suggests the silence, if not the failure, inherent in life itself Of silence and music, Michael says at the end of the story that they “had the power to change whoever listened.” The loss that silence signifies and the longing that music creates define what one learns about living, whether one stays in one place or moves to another.
In “Blight,” several adolescent friends look for freedom from the run-down environment in which they live. One of them, Ziggy Zilinsky, does this by hallucinating. Ziggy sees statues of the saints winking at him—one time during Mass, he sees the statue of the Blessed Virgin nodding at him in response to his prayer than his missing cat come home. After Pepper Rosado, another member of the group, accidentally hits him in the head with a baseball bat, Ziggy sees famous people on the streets, such as “’Mayor Daley scrounging through garbage.’” Joey “Deejo” De-Campo, also in the group of friends, identifies his freedom with writing. Besides poems and songs, he starts a novel which he never finishes. It begins with “’The dawn rises like sick old men playing on the rooftops in their underwear’” and quickly degenerates into “an epic battle between a spider and a caterpillar.” For Pepper Rosado, freedom is the red convertible he buys, and for the narrator, it is the North Side of Chicago where his girlfriend Debbie lives.
These characters form a rock band that they call “The Blighters,” but the band comes to nothing. Neither do the characters—spiritually, at least. Like the Korean War veterans who return to the neighborhood and grow old in its bars, friends are impregnated with the blight in the story. Ziggy becomes crazier than he has been already. Pepper sells his drums for a down payment on a car (on which he cannot keep up the payments) and enlists in the Marines. Deejo’s writing career becomes nothing more than an unsuccessful song on a jukebox in a local bar. The narrator; who plays saxophone in the band, cannot escape the memory of the neighborhood in which he shared his adolescence with the others. Some of them may move, but their dreams have failed.
The blight of the setting is the image for the failure of the characters’ dreams and is underscored by the 1953 Chevy that the narrator’s father gives him. The narrator calls it a “Blightmobile,” and though he and his friends do not care what happens to the wreck, it does represent a kind of freedom. It symbolizes blight or failure after all when Pepper (to whom the narrator sells it for twenty-five dollars) and the others push it off a railroad bridge into a local river.
The characters in “Nighthawks” are isolated from one another. They are shadows, silhouettes,” insomniacs, sleepwalkers, even the dead. They long for many things, especially love. The story is broken into subtitled sections, and in some of these the narrator appears. In “Laughter;” his lover laughs in her sleep, and this isolates her from him. In...
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