Stuart Dybek 1942-
American short story writer, poet, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Dybek's short fiction career through 1998.
Dybek has been crowned the “neighborhood laureate” of southwest Chicago. His short fiction has been compared to that of Ernest Hemingway, Nelson Algren, and Sherwood Anderson, authors who also recorded accounts of Midwestern communities. Dybek recounts the world of his childhood with a tender, lyrical nostalgia. But critics laud him for never allowing memory to rose-tint his recollections—he tempers the fantastic and often surreal elements of his narratives with honest, gritty realism and the reoccurring feelings of disillusionment and displacement known to dwellers of a city, and world, in transition.
Dybek was born April 10, 1942. The family lived on the southwest side of Chicago, in a working class neighborhood home to eastern-European Americans and Mexican Americans. Dybek returns to this neighborhood again and again in his fiction, often narrating the stories from an adolescent's viewpoint. He attended local Catholic schools before going on to the pre-med program at Chicago's Loyola University. He dropped out for a time, working in the civil rights and peace movements, but eventually returned to Loyola earning a B.S. in 1965 and an M.A. four years later. At one point, he worked as a caseworker in the Cook County Department of Public Aid, a job which provided him with some of the details he would later use in the story “Charity.” Music, jazz in particular, is also a great source of inspiration to Dybek; critics often mention the “lyrical” or “musical” flow and rhythm of his work. His first collection of stories, Childhood and other Neighborhoods (1980) won many literary prizes, including a Special Citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation, a Whiting Writers' Award (he was one of the first ten recipients of the award), and the Cliff Dwellers Arts Foundation Award. Other awards and honors include a Guggenheim fellowship (1981), a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship (1982), and the Nelson Algren Award (1985). He also won two O. Henry Awards, in 1985 for “Hot Ice” and in 1987 for “Blight,” both of which are stories included in his second collection of short fiction The Coast of Chicago (1990). Dybek has taught English and creative writing at Western Michigan University since 1974.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Dybek's stories are set in the Chicago of his youth, in communities with blurring ethnic identities, where Old World traditions and memories are quickly being pushed to the edges of collective consciousness in favor of slick, faceless “urban renewal.” His longer pieces tend to attract the most attention, although they are often actually sketches and vignettes paired with longer narratives and not traditional “short stories.” His work “Nighthawks,” involving the Edward Hopper painting of the same name and several threads of narrative weaving in and out of each other, is written in this manner. “Blight,” for which Dybek has won several awards, is probably his most successful story. It involves a group of boys whose Chicago neighborhood has been labeled an “Official Blight Area.” The boys do what they can to remain vibrant amidst the dying community, writing epic novels and starting a rock-and-roll band, eventually reclaiming their surroundings as an “Official Blithe Area.” “Hot Ice” exemplifies Dybek's talent for incorporating seemingly disparate elements into a solid whole; his characters here are Mexican and Polish, teenagers and adults, and the plot resets a grim version of Sleeping Beauty in an urban winter. Dybek is a frequent contributor to many literary journals and periodicals including the Chicago Review, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and Poetry.
Commentators have often discussed the exploration of opposites in Dybek's work. He has garnered the most praise for stories in which surreal, magical, even grotesque elements interact with unblinkingly realistic portrayals of urban loss and displacement. His use of mythical Slavic sensibilities is heralded as a new take on the gritty Chicago tradition. But some critics find his combination of naturalism and the fantastic unsuccessful in many pieces. Dybek's repeated use of child or adolescent narrators also draws mixed reactions—some observers accuse the author of dodging deeper insight by telling his stories in immature voices, but most readers appreciate the exuberance and honesty of the youthful protagonists.