(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Chicago has a long tradition of producing fine writers who use the city as their literary landscape. Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, and Theodore Dreiser, among others, belong to this tradition. Stuart Dybek, while drawing heavily on the city for his settings, characters, and images, departs from the tradition with his dreamlike portrayal of life in a postmodern world. Some critics have identified his work with Magical Realism and have suggested a connection with Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino. Dybek himself reports that after he wrote some of the early stories included in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods he began to read Franz Kafka and Gabriel García Márquez.

In addition to exploring the intersection between dreams and reality, Dybek has pioneered the genre sometimes known as “sudden” or “flash” fiction. These stories are sometimes also called “short short” stories; sudden fiction can be just a few paragraphs long, and such stories are never longer than three pages. Consequently, readers of sudden fiction often find themselves in the middle of a situation well under way, a situation that will end but not conclude. Some of the prose poems in Dybek’s poetry collection, Brass Knuckles, could fall into this category. The Coast of Chicago also includes several very short stories.

Many of Dybek’s stories draw on his experiences growing up in a Polish-Latino neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. His characters often have Polish surnames, attend Catholic churches, and carry with them the culture and mythology of Eastern Europe. Even when his stories are not overtly about the immigrant experience, their settings are rich with ethnic sounds, aromas, and sights. Churches frequently appear in the center of the landscape.

Dybek often places his characters in moments of transformation. Frequently this takes the form of a coming-of-age story, especially in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. In a 1997 interview with Mike Nickel and Adrian Smith, Dybek says that he is always “looking for some door in the story that opens on another world.” For some characters, this can be the world of adulthood; for others, it can be an entry into the world of magic or death. The entry into a different world can be a transformative moment for his characters, as well as for his readers.

Childhood and Other Neighborhoods

The eleven stories of the collection are about coming-of-age. With his title, Dybek deliberately suggests that there is both a time and a space to childhood; that is, he sees childhood in the same way one would see a neighborhood, as a place where interconnected people live out their lives, bounded by streets, houses, ethnicity, and religion. The main characters in this collection are generally young people, often second-or third-generation Poles making their homes in Chicago. Dybek himself identifies the subject of the collection as “perception,” reminding his readers that children perceive the world in ways that are different from the ways adults do. For many of the characters in this book, their moment of transformation comes...

(The entire section is 1294 words.)