The Coast of Chicago

by Stuart Dybek

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2160

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 “Everything,” a former lover calls, asking him to make love to her; he will not do this, and she cannot have him, because he is married and their past together is only a memory. In “Killing Time,” the narrator spends a large amount of time in the Chicago Art Institute to escape the rigors of looking for a job. “I wanted a ticket out of my life,” he says of the Impressionist paintings to which he is drawn at the museum. Without a job, it is as though he barely exists, and neither do the bright worlds he longs to enter in the paintings.

The painting to which he always comes back at the end of his reveries is Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. This work is stark, and its famous late-night, urban diner scene becomes the setting for the shadowy characters in the next section of the story. These are the night people, cut off from one another, steeped in their dreamy longings. One of them, for example, adjusts her makeup outside the diner, using its window as a mirror. Her reflected kiss on the window remains to haunt the diner’s patrons when she, ghostly to begin with, drifts away.

The story’s images become characters at this point. A kiss floats through the city, attached to no one and impossible to capture. A young conga player’s girlfriend is an image like this, a ghost in the subway where he plays his conga to retrieve her. He becomes the mythic image of Orpheus trying to save Eurydice from the Underworld, and like Orpheus, he charms the dead but fails in his quest.

In “Hot Ice,” the dead or missing have a hold on the living. In this story, a young girl is said to have drowned in Douglas Park in Chicago while trying to escape from would-be rapists. The legend says that her father hid her half-naked body in a block of ice in the icehouse he owned. The girl is reputed to be a saint who can perform miracles. For example, Big Antek, a wino and a butcher, swears that he found her in the freezer room of a Czech meat market where, having passed out, he was trapped for a weekend. By staying close to the frozen girl, he says, he was able to survive the ordeal (though he also had beer to keep him warm).

The religious framework of this legend is echoed by another character in the story, Pancho Santora. Pancho “believed in everything—ghosts, astrology, legends.” Before he is sent to prison for an unspecified crime, he is a zealous altar boy. He plays Mass in his backyard, wears crosses, and even has a collection of sneakers color-coded to the feast days for which he serves Mass.

His younger brother Manny is a cynic; Manny’s sidekick Eddie Kapusta is also, though a less virulent one. Both characters feel betrayed by the past, which had “collapsed about them—decayed, bulldozed, obliterated.” This past is their environment, and despite their cynicism, they try to see value in it—Manny by turning Pancho into a kind of saint and Eddie by memorizing unusual windows, which is “how he held the city together in his mind.” One of these windows, for example, is at a Greek butcher shop and has a pile of lamb skulls in it, and another is at a bar with a neon sign of blue coconuts.

The conflict in the story is between life as it is and how one wants it to be. Manny, with Eddie in tow, spends many nights walking past the prison Pancho is in, trying to get some news about, or a response from, his brother. Not only does he fail, but Pancho vanishes altogether, and no one is sure what has happened to him.

The prison symbolizes the mystery of loss, and the icehouse across the street from it the hope imbedded in the past. Manny begins to realize that memory is a trap. Fishing with his Uncle Carlos, he swims out into Lake Michigan, tempted to drown in it to dissolve his depression. “The flow of water cleansed him of memory,” but, finally, he does not want to end his life—the present—in order to rid himself of the past.

In the end, the icehouse, like the subway-Hades in “Nighthawks,” become an ice-Inferno. Manny and Eddie, guided part way by Big Antek as a sort of inept Vergil, enter the defunct icehouse and, in its basement, track down the drowned “saint” in her block of ice. They roll her into the lake, melting her in it to exorcise the present of their imagined past.

In movement is hope—this is the message of “Pet Milk.” Its title, like the titles of the other stories, announces its focal image. Condensed milk, like the cream in the liqueur that the lovers in the story dririk, does not lose its identity to that with which it is mixed. Similarly, the narrator and his girlfriend Kate mix but remain separate. The narrator’s feeling for Kate involves such a mixture: “I always loved seeing her in mirrors and windows.” He is fascinated by her reflection in the glass over an old painting called The Musicians of Prague in one of Chicago’s Czech restaurants. She thus becomes part—though tenuously—of a past, perhaps an ancestry, that defines him.

On the other hand, the lovers have separate objectives in their lives. Kate wants to attend graduate school in Europe, and the narrator wants to join the Peace Corps. Still, attraction and sex itself mix them together; as they take the subway to Kate’s home in Evanston, north of the city, their movement toward the future—past their ethnic mixture and the narrator’s memories of the city in which he grew up and where he still lives—is the image of hope that their mixture projects.

The vignettes in The Coast of Chicago help to italicize the themes of nostalgia, love, and isolation that are developed in the stories. In “Farwell,” for example, Babovitch, a Russian emigre living alone, dotes on Russian opera and the “good bakeries” of Odessa. The narrator clings to this kind of nostalgia long after Babovitch is gone (the title is a street name, but an obvious pun as well), and in “Bottlecaps,” he remembers the bottlecaps he collected as a child. The act of writing about this expresses his nostalgia, but the vignette itself shows that one person’s treasure is another’s opportunity; the narrator is isolated in what he values, but his brother steals his bottlecaps to make “tombstones … in [his] insect graveyard.” The woman in “Strays” takes in stray animals but never names them; of the isolation implicit in human love, she says, “‘A name’s what we use instead of smelling.’”

Stuart Dybek uses images the way a poet does. They propel the characters, and structure the meaning, of his stories. Because of this, plot takes second place to setting and tone. Main characters and what they desire—the staples of plot—are sometimes hard to pinpoint. Despite this, however, the virtues of these stories are clear: They evoke the texture of settings and the complex feelings of those who experience them.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVI, March 1, 1990, p.1263.

Chicago. XXXIX, May, 1990, p.115.

Chicago Thibune. April 8, 1990, XIV, p.1.

Kirkus Reviews. LVIII, February 15, 1990, p.204.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 20, 1990, p.3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, May 20, 1990, p.30.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVII, March 2, 1990, p.73.

USA Today. May 7, 1990, p. D5.

The Washington Post. July 26, 1990, p. C2.

Washington Times. July 2, 1990, p. E8.

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