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.