Stuart Dybek Dybek, Stuart (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Reg Saner (review date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 eating beef—and since the blood on her chin is "dark as a pomegranate" we understand the scene as myth-made-new. Four pages and other contemporized existences later, a grown-up Persephone induces the cock-shorn rapist, Death, to masturbate her, drawn by his "torment, the mutilation borne / with grace and majesty. / He alone among the gods still undiminished."

But does it work? Anyone owning a penis will find one of his fears confronted in the poem, undeniably memorably. And memorability ranks high in art. My own reaction...

(The entire section is 818 words.)

Robert Ward (review date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1357 words.)

Bruce Cook (review date 13 January 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 862 words.)

Ivan Gold (review date 24 February 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

David Clewell (review date Spring-Summer 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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;...

(The entire section is 1437 words.)

Joseph Coates (review date 8 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 983 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 20 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 1064 words.)

Katharine Weber (review date 20 May 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 279 words.)

Thomas S. Gladsky (essay date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5600 words.)