Dybek, Stuart (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Stuart Dybek 1942–
American short story writer, poet, and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of Dybek's career through 1997.
Much of Stuart Dybek's fictional world addresses adolescent life in Chicago's immigrant neighborhoods. Though often considered a member of a long tradition of Chicago writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Saul Bellow, Dybek is known for blurring the lines between the real and the magical, which sets his work apart from the realism of other Chicago writers.
Dybek was born on April 10, 1942, in an immigrant neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago. His father, Stanley, was a foreman in an International Harvester Plant, and his mother, Adeline, was a truck dispatcher. Dybek developed an interest in music at a young age and has said that jazz music has been an important influence on his development as a writer. He attended a Catholic high school, but soon rejected the strictures of the Catholic church. Upon graduation, Dybek entered Loyola University of Chicago as a pre-med student. He dropped out to devote himself to the peace and civil rights movements, but returned later to receive both his bachelor's (1964) and master's (1968) degrees. Dybek worked as a case worker for the Cook County Department of Public Aid, and a teacher in an elementary school in a Chicago suburb. He also worked in advertising, and then, from 1968 to 1970, he taught at a high school on the island of Saint Thomas. In 1970 Dybek turned his focus to writing; he entered the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Iowa where he received an M.F.A. in 1973. He has taught English at Western Michigan University since 1974. Dybek has won several awards, including an Ernest Hemingway Citation from the P.E.N. American Center for Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (1980) in 1981; the Whiting Writers Award in 1985; and three O. Henry Memorial Prize Story Awards in 1985, 1986, and 1987.
Dybek's collection Brass Knuckles (1979) combines verse and prose poems. The verse poems are clearly set in inner city neighborhoods, whereas the prose poems are not so definitive in their sense of place. Many of the poems focus on childhood, but the images are stark and often violent. "The Rape of Persephone" is the center of the collection, describing the molestation of a child, her subsequent revenge, and her falling in love with Death at the conclusion of the poem. Other poems also rework traditional myths, including "Lazarus" and "Orpheus." Dybek's Childhood and Other Stories is a collection of stories about childhood in the Chicago of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. The collection espouses Dybek's assertion that childhood is a visionary state of perception. Ethnicity is very important to the collection, and several stories have themes concerning immigrant life in the city. In "Blood Soup," two boys search the city for a jar of duck blood for an old-country remedy to help cure their grandmother. In other stories Dybek's use of ethnicity is more subtle; his protagonists are often third-generation Polish immigrants and ethnic references are more vague. Some stories in the collection have a surreal quality. "Visions of Budhardin" is about a man who returns to his old neighborhood to make amends for luring his friends into mortal sin when he was a youth. He roams his former neighborhood behind the controls of a mechanical elephant. In the process, he wrecks a church only to escape on a garbage scow with an altar boy. The Coast of Chicago (1990) is a combination of one- and two-page vignettes and longer short stories. "Chopin in Winter" deals with the theme of loneliness. The main character, Marcy, is pregnant by an unnamed man and living with her mother. She plays Chopin on her piano, and for a brief moment in time, the music links her to an old man, Dzia-Dzia, and his young grandson who listen to her from a downstairs apartment. To Marcy, the music represents a lament for her lost youth. To Dzia-Dzia, who spent his life moving around, the music reminds him of his life in Poland. To the grandson, who has a crush on Marcy, the music represents the grown-up world which he is on the brink of entering. Metamorphosis is also an important theme in this collection, as represented in "Hot Ice." The story focuses on an urban legend of a young virgin who drowns while fending off a sexual assault, and who is then entombed in an abandoned ice house by her distraught father. Big Antek, a former butcher, claims to have seen the virgin and her coffin of ice. He claims that while locked in the ice house one night, her presence warmed him and helped him avoid freezing. The three main characters are changed through their connection to the legend. The virgin herself, or at least her story, is metamorphosized when the protagonists free her from her icy coffin.
Critics classify Dybek as a "Chicago writer" and compare his work to that of Nelson Algren and James T. Farrell, among others. Bruce Cook calls Dybek "a true inheritor, one who stands tall in a direct line of succession with Chicago's best." Reviewers often note the black humor present in Dybek's work. They also comment that there is a blurring of fantasy and reality in Dybek's fictional world, and that there is a "transcendental, magical quality" to many of his stories, in the words of Cook. Certain reviewers have asserted that Dybek occasionally loses control of his fantastical elements and that his stories are weakened in the process. David Kubal complains that Dybek suffers from "the modern writer's urge to mythologize reality…." Some reviewers discuss the difficulty of avoiding sentimentalism when writing about childhood and immigrant neighborhoods, but critics assert that Dybek avoids this fault. David Clewell states that "whether writing about adolescent sex, hoodlums, shopkeepers, or his beautifully-drawn ragmen, Dybek neatly skirts the obvious pitfalls of sentimentality." Despite his shortcomings, critics have found Dybek to be a strong and imaginative writer.
Brass Knuckles (poetry) 1979
Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (short stories) 1980
Orchids (play) 1990
The Coast of Chicago (short stories) 1990; also published with six selections from Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, 1991
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SOURCE: A review of Brass Knuckles, in The Ohio Review, No. 25, 1980, pp. 113-19.
[In the following excerpt, Saner reviews Dybek's Brass Knuckles asserting that despite unsettling subject matter, he found himself "involved."]
One gathers that Stuart Dybek is younger by a good deal than either [John] Allman or [William] Dickey. Certainly his Brass Knuckles offers a collection less consistently sustained, though with plenty of compensatory energy. Since the book mixes verse and prose poems about equally it may be fair to infer that Dybek is uncertain what sort of piece he wants to write. The verse tends to focus on inner-cityscapes, while the prose poems cultivate more surreal experience not circumstantially "placed." If the latter half of Brass Knuckles goes deeper into the psyche, the fact that it is mainly prose poems may be less significant than Dybek's growing experience in his art.
Since the book's dominant polarities are Eros and Thanatos, "The Rape of Persephone" centers the collection. In this long verse poem myth and journalism palimpsest. The scene of child molestation in an "abandoned garage" with its burnt, cat-pissed mattress might have been a neighborhood crime or newspaper item. But since no actual child would be vagina dentata enough to really seize a fallen razor and lop off the molester's penis while sucking it—like a gaucho...
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SOURCE: A review of Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, in Northwest Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, 1980, pp. 149-57.
[In the following excerpt, Ward discusses the inner city lives Dybek portrays in his Childhood and Other Neighborhoods.]
If this tone of apocalypse and condemnation is where Otto's work leaves off, it is where Stuart Dybek's Childhood and Other Neighborhoods begins. Where Otto's stories depend for their effect on his characters' complacency, Dybek's are stories of the inner city, a panorama of ruined lives overcome by the refuse of civilization. In these longer, carefully crafted stories set in the Chicago of the 40's, 50's and 60's, Dybek's technique is a no-holds-barred assault on everything we may have smugly assumed was reality. Though his characters appear to have vitality in a world they are forced to scrape a living from, in truth they are cripples who manage only to fend off the total impotence that bellies in on them. From the ragmen of "The Palatski Man" who each Sunday in their impoverished warren outside the city perform a strange communion composed of liquid blood red candy, generally used for the candy apples they sell, to "crazy Swantek," of "The Cat Woman," whose grandmother managed a meager living through drowning unwanted kittens in her basement washing machine, until Swantek took to hanging them out on the line to dry, it is Dybek's artistry to capture the...
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SOURCE: "Walks on the Southwest Side," in Washington Post Book World, January 13, 1980, pp. 1-2.
[In the following review, Cook praises Dybek's Childhood and Other Neighborhoods and discusses how Dybek fits into the tradition of Chicago writers.]
Along a diagonal line southwest from Chicago's Loop lies a vast terra incognita once populated almost completely by Slavic groups which has been changing over to black and Latin during the past couple of decades. Chicago has had neighborhood laureates in the past—James T. Farrell, who wrote of the south-side Irish; Gwendolyn Brooks, the fine poet who sings of the black south side; Nelson Algren, whose people are the Poles of the near-northwest side; and Saul Bellow, who has written so well about the west-side Jews. But nobody has come forward to speak for that mixed patch surrounding Douglas Park on the southwest side. That is, nobody until now. For here is Stuart Dybek to tell you what it is like to grow up there—the sights, the sounds, the smells, all of it—and this volume of his stories constitutes as impressive a debut as has been made by any of the many good writers who have come out of that "dark city," Chicago.
Of them all Dybek seems most like Nelson Algren. Although it may simply be a similarity of subject matter, I was reminded again and again while reading Childhood and Other Neighborhoods of the tough, beautiful...
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SOURCE: A review of Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, in The New York Times Book Review, February 24, 1980, pp. 14-15.
[In the following review, Gold praises the stories in Dybek's Childhood and Other Neighborhoods.]
This is a collection of stories about coming of age in Chicago. Stuart Dybek's title struck me as a trifle coy, until I had finished the book. By then Childhood and Other Neighborhoods had come to seem as apt as any of the startling observations and sharp images that distinguish these 11 tales of growing up poor and American and urban in the middle decades of the 20th century. Mr. Dybek grounds his stories in the city's streets and alleys, in the feel his young children and adolescents have for the neighborhood landscapes of their early years, and then bends his flair for naturalism on an anvil of fantasy, with bizarre results that yet seem utterly consistent with the logic of childhood.
In "Blood Soup," 13-year-old Steve sets out to find duck's blood, the primary ingredient in a soup his ailing grandmother believes will keep her alive. Equipped with the jar that had contained her holy water, Steve picks up his younger brother, Dove, and together they begin an odyssey that takes them to rooftops, to a lagoon in the black section of the city, to an abandoned tenement listing over the elevated railway. There they locate Pan Gowumpe, a raucous old man surrounded...
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SOURCE: "Vital Assurances," in The Chowder Review, No. 14, Spring-Summer, 1980, pp. 64-7.
[In the following excerpt, Clewell favorably reviews Dybek's Brass Knuckles and calls Dybek a "multi-talented, generous imagination."]
There is a certain presence in the world of contemporary poetry that I like to think of as the "hermetic poem." This type of poem is almost always "well-crafted," riveted and tempered in all the right places so there can be no mistaking this object as poem. These poems would have us know that their makers are conscious, careful technicians well-versed in poesy. But the poem itself, for all practical purposes, is insulated and sealed; it is effectively impervious to any and all forces from the outside. Sometimes we are given certain clues to follow: the sky may be "cracked porcelain," a "someone" may be in a room "somewhere," as if a deliberate fuzzing of time and space inherently enhances a poem. By the time we finish with one of these poems we feel—if we feel anything at all—that we're supposed to feel a certain way, supposed to appreciate the special integration of everything we have been given. But too often we are hard-pressed for the where's and why's, as though we have been taken through a dance without ever having seen our partner. The hermetic poem, proud of its word-prowess, is self-satisfied. Partners are optional, expendable and, often,...
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SOURCE: A review of Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, in The Hudson Review. Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1980, pp. 445-47.
[In the following excerpt, Kubal states that Dybek's Childhood and Other Stories contains "stories of vigorous and brilliant unconventionality.]
In Stuart Dybek's first book, a group of eleven uncanny stories about childhood and adolescence, we encounter a world radically different from Miss Beattie's or Mr. Vivante's. It is the Southwest side of Chicago during the 1940s, fifties, and sixties, a Slavic neighborhood gradually being overtaken by Blacks and Spanish. It is also a harsh and repulsive section of the city, which the author's singular imagination nonetheless enchants, transforming it into a world of magical grotesques. With its antecedents in Russian, and, perhaps, in Yiddish literature (one is sometimes reminded of I. B. Singer's stories), as much as in Sherwood Anderson and James T. Farrell, his fiction treats Ragmen, who hold strange rituals on the outskirts of town on Sunday after Mass; an old buzka, the Cat Woman, and her crazy grandson, Swantek, who drowns kittens and hangs them on the clothesline to dry; Budhardin, who returns to the neighborhood inside a mechanical elephant to revenge himself on the parish church; and, the oddest of all, "Uncle" and his apprentice, who scour the highways of Cook County for dead animals to stuff and sell to...
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SOURCE: "A Storied Renaissance," in The Chicago Tribune, April 8, 1990, pp. 1, 4.
[In the following excerpt, Coates asserts that Dybek's The Coast of Chicago is further proof of the renaissance of the short story.]
The market is minuscule and shrinking further under the heat of bottom-line publishing forces—just one weekly magazine, the New Yorker, now regularly publishes short stories, as opposed to more than 50 in the days before TV. Yet the form is booming in both quantity and especially quality, as editor Shannon Ravenel confirms in her introduction to The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties.
I believe the 1980s will be known as another golden age [of the short story], though for reasons very different from those which led to the story's great popularity in the teens and twenties, when writers could live off their work in a way that today's practitioners could not.
Though I not only agree with this but also will soon offer more proof of it, Ravenel's excellent collection, to which we will return, is misleadingly titled, to the extent that anyone might infer that the book includes all the best stories or writers of the '80s. To start with the most glaring omission, it hasn't one story by Stuart Dybek, whose second collection of stories establishes him as not merely a talent but a magician comparable to...
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SOURCE: "Lyrical Loss and Desolation of Misfits in Chicago," in The New York Times Book Review, April 20, 1990, p. C31.
[In the following review, Kakutani compares Dybek's The Coast of Chicago with Sherwood Anderson's Winsburg, Ohio, stating that while it lacks a central hero and "authorial perspective to put the characters' dilemmas in context with the larger world," the collection does possess an "emotional forcefulness."]
The narrator of one of Stuart Dybek's elegiac new stories goes to the Art Institute of Chicago and stands before Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," that famous painting of a corner diner, done in somber tones of black and blue and brown. He stands there, closes his eyes, and thinks to himself: "It was night in Hopper's painting: the diner illuminated the dark city corner with a stark light it didn't seem capable of throwing on its own. Three customers sat at the counter as if waiting, not for something to begin, but rather to end, and I knew how effortless it would be to open my eyes and find myself waiting there, too."
Hopper's painting captures perfectly the mood of Mr. Dybek's stories—the solitary lives of his characters, the lyrical desolation of their city neighborhood, the feeling of longing and regret that encircles their hopes and dreams. As in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, most of the stories take place at night or twilight, that...
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SOURCE: "Windy City Dreaming," in The New York Times Book Review, May 20, 1990, p. 30.
[In the following review, Weber praises Dybek's The Coast of Chicago.]
Stuart Dybek could flip a coin and win a bet that it would land on its edge. In his second collection of stories, he gambles (usually successfully) that the paradoxical borders and margins of life are the most interesting places to locate his fiction. Some of these 14 stories are big and rich, long enough for a leisurely pace and pleasant reiterations of themes and motifs without running the least risk of seeming overstuffed or repetitious. The other stories, interleaved, are extremely short, ranging from a few paragraphs to a few pages. But these brief illuminations are no less effective, and they stand alone with a deft elegance that makes them far more than amusing little palate cleansers between courses. Crossing over to the lost territories of childhood is a recurring theme in The Coast of Chicago. Memories that are intensely dreamlike, as opposed to nostalgic, seem to drive many of Mr. Dybek's characters, whose thoughts circle and hover over old Chicago neighborhoods. One of the longest and most moving stories, "Nighthawks," has clearly been inspired by the eponymous Edward Hopper painting of a cafe and its middle-of-the-night denizens. Mr. Dybek names the night counterman Ray and imagines him trying to sleep during the day: "Perhaps...
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SOURCE: "Into the Underworlds," in Times Literary Supplement, July 26, 1991, p. 19.
[In the following review, Montrose discusses the problems of combining two volumes of Dybek's stories into the British version of The Coast of Chicago.]
Eight of the stories in The Coast of Chicago, Stuart Dybek's fine British début, have been selected from a larger volume of the same name published in America last year; the remaining six are from his previous collection, Childhood and Other Neighbourhoods. The titles are apposite. Dybek's fictive territory is his native patch, the Slav and Hispanic districts of Chicago's South Side (frequently during the 1950s, "those years between Korea and Vietnam"); his protagonists are often children and adolescents.
All the earlier stories are third-person narratives, the majority with children serving as the centres of consciousness. Particularly impressive are two in which pairs of children stray into alarming social netherworlds. "The Palatski Man" sees John and his kid sister follow a sweet-vendor back to the encampment of a gypsy-like clan of peddlers, where they witness a strange quasi-Mass. In "Blood Soup", two brothers brave dangerous neighbourhoods in quest of fresh duck blood (no longer obtainable legally), an essential ingredient of a restorative potion for their ailing grandmother.
A variation on this device is employed...
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SOURCE: "From Ethnicity to Multiculturalism: The Fiction of Stuart Dybek," in MELUS, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 105-118.
[In the following essay, Gladsky analyzes the significance of ethnicity in the work of Stuart Dybek.]
The new world culture and old country heritage of approximately fifteen million Americans of Polish descent are among multicultural America's best kept secrets. Historically a quiet minority, they have been eager to acculturate, assimilate, and melt into the mainstream. One of the consequences of this has been a failure to acquaint other Americans with Polish culture—its history and literature—or to establish a recognized ethnic literary tradition. This is not to say that there is not a Polish presence in American letters. From the 1830s and the arrival of the first significant body of Polish émigrés, primarily officers exiled after the 1831 uprising against the tzar, American writers have created Polish literary selves in plays, fiction, poems, and in prose works numbering perhaps as many as two hundred. Many of these contain abbreviated characterizations, predictably simplistic portraits, or, in some cases, merely composite Slavic cultural representations. At the same time, a few writers of classic ethnic and immigrant fiction, such as Karl Harriman (The Homebuilders 1903), Edith Miniter (Our Natupski Neighbors 1916), and Joseph Vogel (Man's Courage...
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SOURCE: "An Interview with Stuart Dybek," in Chicago Review, Vol. 43, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 87-101.
[In the following interview, Dybek discusses what he thinks of the label "Chicago writer," his approach to writing, and the importance of form.]
The following interview was conducted as part of the University of Memphis's ongoing River City Writers Series; the conversation took place March 7, 1995, in Memphis. Stuart Dybek's books include two collections of short stories, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, and Coast of Chicago, as well as a work of poetry, Brass Knuckles. A recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Arts and Letters, Dybek's writing may be found in The New Yorker, and The Best American Short Stories of 1995.
[Nickel:] I thought we'd start by talking about the Chicago style with which you're often identified. Let's begin with the term "Chicago Writer." I'm curious how you feel about it?
[Dybek:] Well, at this point it might seem a little disingenuous of me to say that it was a surprise because the reviews have mentioned it so often, but it really was. When my first book of stories came out, I was living in the Keys, a long way from Chicago. And the way I had written those stories was as individual pieces until I realized that there was an organizational principle in the fact that a lot of...
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