Stuart Dybek Dybek, Stuart (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Childhood and Other Neighborhoods 1980

The Coast of Chicago 1990

Brass Knuckles (poetry) 1979

Orchids (play) 1990

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 November 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fiction.” Kirkus Reviews 47, no. 21 (1 November 1979): 1278.

[In the following review, the critic admires the story “The Apprentice” from Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, but unfavorably reviews the collection itself.]

Stories and sketches, verismo chunks of muscular Chicago reality: boys bringing a dying immigrant grandmother a jar of outlawed duck's blood soup; tales of ragmen; teenage car escapades; adolescent artists-in-bud; the “basic principle of Catholic education—the Double Reverse: 1) suspect what they teach you; 2) study what they condemn.” Set mostly in poor milieus, Polish or black or Puerto Rican, the sketches generally have a lurid effectiveness just a step or two beyond total believability. But all of Dybek's range and flair works together in the final story, “The Apprentice,” in which a truant boy courses through the city in the constant company of his crazy, ex-taxidermist uncle; together they collect dead-on-the-road animals destined for an imaginary restaurant the uncle claims to supply and which caters to displaced-person gourmets—a metaphor the boy doesn't appreciate for a while (and neither do we, right off). The uncle is full, in fact, of metaphors, lovely and outsized ones; and the story's climax reaches a literal (bridge-climbing) height and arc, as well as a symbolic one, that's absolutely superb. It crowns a collection (badly titled, unfortunately) that's otherwise strong and busy but—unlike that last, wonderful story—less than enthralling.

Phoebe Lou Adams (review date February 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Adams, Phoebe Lou. “Short Reviews.” Atlantic Monthly 245 (February 1980): 95.

[In the following review of Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, Adams suggests that Dybek's stories contain both morals and “precise” narratives.]

As the title suggests, children occupy most of the stories in this volume. Lest that fact make potential readers wary, it should be noted that these tales in no way resemble the narcissistic “sensitive young man” stories that are the staples of many literary magazines and of writers' workshops everywhere. Dybek is an original.

The landscape of the book is a stylized, half-fantastic version of ethnic Chicago, full of eerie, secret regions oblivious to the city around them: a remote dump where a strange army of ragmen camp, a series of back streets nicknamed “the Alley of Heartaches,” a railroad bridge known as “the Black Angel.” For Dybek's children and young adolescents this is truly an underground, and their adventures in it take on a quality of fable or myth. One could say of most of these stories that they are about the lessons of growing up, but the ideas in them do not draw attention to themselves; the stories are the ideas. All are dramatic and some are grotesque, but Dybek does not confuse violence with narrative power, and every story is relieved by comedy and precise psychological observation. Childhood and Other Neighborhoods does exactly what a first book should do—it introduces us to a fresh voice.

Howard Kaplan (review date 23 May 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kaplan, Howard. “In Brief.” Commonweal 107, no. 10 (23 May 1980): 319.

[In the following review, Kaplan criticizes Dybek for his use of child narrators, a device which Kaplan states allows Dybek an easy escape from deeper analysis.]

You can tell the romantic writer by his choice of characters: he's a sucker for outsiders and underground men. In these eleven Chicago stories Stuart Dybek writes about pushcart peddlers (“The Palatski Man”), an amateur ornithologist holed up in a condemned building (“Blood Soup”), sots, pederasts, paranoid DPs. A tough bunch to get to know well in real life, even for writers. So when Dybek filters their stories through a child's point of view, as he tends to do, the strategy smacks of convenience more than anything else: a child doesn't have to pretend to understand what he sees. Over and over we wind up with the little tyke's sense of wonder and no more. It's like an excuse to flesh out scanty material. When Dybek tells a story “straight,” as in the one about a crone who disposes of the neighborhood's excess kittens by drowning them in her washer, he doesn't have much to say: “The Cat Woman” is the shortest piece in the book.

The best story here (never mind the book's title) is not about childhood. More memoir than fiction, “Charity” records the author's psychological hard times as a social worker on Chicago's South Side. The main issue is this: how does a white do-gooder manage day after day to run a gauntlet of black panhandlers and still keep the faith? The story puts us in a funny position, which is that we end up feeling more for one of The System's own than for all the really sad cases who pass through these pages.

David Kubal (review date autumn 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kubal, David. “Fiction Chronicle.” The Hudson Review 33, no. 3 (autumn 1980): 445-47.

[In the below review, Kubal praises the unconventionality of Dybek's “magical grotesques” collected in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, but notes that Dybek may be attempting to raise the mundane world to the mythic, at the expense of a serious exploration of reality.]

In Stuart Dybek's first book [Childhood and Other Neighborhoods], a group of eleven uncanny stories about childhood and adolescence, we encounter a world radically different from Miss Beattie's or Mr. Vivante's. It is the Southwest side of Chicago during the 1940s, fifties, and sixties, a...

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Alice Bloom (review date summer 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Bloom, Alice. “Shorted Out.” The Hudson Review 40, no. 2 (summer 1987): 323, 329-30.

[In the following excerpt, Bloom gives a positive review of Childhood and Other Neighborhoods.]

I've just read 312 new short stories—American, European, Latin American. As a review is on some level a piece of advice anyway (buy, read, take seriously, etc., or don't) I'll begin with my piece and say: don't do this, don't read 312 or even 12 in a row. One, well okay, three stuffed mushrooms, a few brief interesting or amusing conversations, make for a pretty good stand-up party. But after 312 however savoury niblets of taste and talk one is both bloated and undernourished,...

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Stuart Klawans (review date April 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Klawans, Stuart. “Brief Encounters.” The Village Voice Literary Supplement no. 84 (April 1990): 6.

[In the following review, Klawans commends Dybek for his evocative stories.]

Stuart Dybek's new book begins with a story titled “Entrance”—an appropriate name, whichever syllable you stress. Though the word refers immediately to the doorway of a three-flat, that fundamental unit of Chicago architecture, what really opens here is memory—the memory of departed people, of places that have changed, of everything that, in vanishing, gains the power to put you under a spell.

The setting, too, is appropriate, since few cities are so well...

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Antioch Review (review date fall 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Coast of Chicago, by Stuart Dybek.Antioch Review 48, no. 4 (fall 1990): 545.

[In the following review, the critic compares Dybek's work to that of Hemingway.]

In 14 interlocked stories and vivid “short shorts” reminiscent of Hemingway's stark interludes in In Our Time, Dybek writes of a richly remembered Chicago of boyhood, adolescence, and young manhood. Dreamlike and phantasmagoric, his stories remain paradoxically vivid and realistic. Creatures of the night, his characters are apparitions, luminescent reflections and shadows who inhabit a rain-streaked, surreal city of memories and ghosts, of vanished ethnic neighborhoods...

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Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 February 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fiction.” Kirkus Reviews 58, no. 4 (15 February 1990): 204-05.

[In the following review of The Coast of Chicago, the critic compares the collection to Dubliners and Sherwood Anderson's tales in its design, scope, and realism.]

Grounded in the realities of ethnic life in Chicago, Dybek's second collection of stories (Children and Other Neighborhoods, 1980) transcends street-corner sociology for an urban poetry of spirit and myth; his lyrical prose derives its power from his switchblade sharp imagery—as well as Proustian sensitivity to the smells and sounds of city life.

Every story here, from the half-page shorts to...

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Don Lee (review date spring 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ploughshares Bookshelf.” Ploughshares 17, no. 1 (spring 1991): 228-29.

[In the following review of The Coast of Chicago, Lee praises Dybek's ability to draw contrasts together, mingling past with future and grim realism with the mythic.]

Readers of literary magazines and anthologies frequently speak of Stuart Dybek's stories with reverence, and they will certainly covet The Coast of Chicago, his second collection, which brings together several works already deemed classics: “Hot Ice,” “Blight,” and “Pet Milk.” Seven long stories are interleaved with seven shorter ones, and they are bound so tightly by place and theme, the book...

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Terry Caesar (review date summer 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Caesar, Terry. “Glimpses, Surfaces, Ecstasies: Three Books of Short Fiction.” Michigan Quarterly Review 30, no. 3 (summer 1991): 506-18.

[In the following review, Caesar lauds Dybek's style, noting examples of taut narrative impressively infused with lyricism and music.]

The title story in Charles Baxter's new volume of stories is about a man who is telephoned one day by another man. He claims to be his brother. They meet at a bar. They are indeed brothers. “Isn't this great?” exclaims one. Well, no, thinks the other. “It was horrifyingly strange without being eventful.”

It is a line which can stand for some of the deepest impulses...

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David Montrose (review date 26 July 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Montrose, David. “Into the Underworlds.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4608 (26 July 1991): 18-19.

[In the following review, Montrose bemoans the British edition of The Coast of Chicago for being spliced-together and lacking in cohesion.]

Eight of the stories in The Coast of Chicago, Stuart Dybek's fine British début, have been selected from a larger volume of the same name published in America last year; the remaining six are from his previous collection, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (1986). The titles are apposite. Dybek's fictive territory is his native patch, the Slav and Hispanic districts of Chicago's South Side (frequently...

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Thomas S. Gladsky (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Gladsky, Thomas S. Princes, Peasants, and Other Polish Selves: Ethnicity in American Literature, pp. 256-62. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Gladsky examines Dybek's thematic use of fading cultural identity and lost places, both physical and emotional, and the effect of this rootlessness on young Chicagoans.]



Stuart Dybek's fiction immediately invites comparison to Nelson Algren's stories about “outsiders and underground men,” as Howard Kaplan describes Dybek's characters...

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Jorge Febles (essay date fall 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Febles, Jorge. “Dying Players: Ramírez's ‘El Centerfielder’ and Dybek's ‘Death of the Rightfielder.’” Confluencia 12, no. 1 (fall 1996): 156-67.

[In the following essay, Febles compares Dybek to Sandinista writer Sergio Ramírez, finding elements of the carnival concept in the work of both authors: reigning absurdity, grotesque figures and rituals, atemporality, and a celebration of the “play spirit.”]

Perhaps there is no rhetorical exercise as gratuitous as searching for tangentialities between literary texts that bear little direct relationship. And yet, such is the nature of the comparative effort which this essay attempts. I intend to...

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Stuart Dybek with Mike Nickel and Adrian Smith (interview date winter 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Dybek, Stuart, with Mike Nickel and Adrian Smith. “An Interview with Stuart Dybek.” Chicago Review 43, no. 1 (winter 1997): 87-101.

[In the following interview, Dybek discusses the perception of him being a Chicago writer, the role of childhood in his stories, and influences on his work.]

The following interview was conducted as part of the University of Memphis's ongoing River City Writers Series; the conversation took place March 7, 1995, in Memphis. Stuart Dybek's books include two collections of short stories, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (Viking, 1980), and Coast of Chicago (Knopf, 1990), as well as a work of poetry, Brass...

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Don Lee (essay date spring 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Lee, Don. “About Stuart Dybek: A Profile by Don Lee.” Ploughshares 24, no. 1 (spring 1998): 192-98.

[In the following essay, Lee offers an overview of Dybek's career as a short story writer.]

Stuart Dybek works with a curious mix of spontaneity and retentiveness. He wrote most of the stories for his first collection, for instance, under a spell. He'd put on Eastern European classical music, and the words would simply pour out. To this day, Dybek relies on music for inspiration, listening to jazz, jotting in a notebook, improvising, not knowing or caring if the lines will beget a poem or a short-short or a novella. Yet he can be superstitious and fussy—a...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Coates, Joseph. “A Storied Renaissance.” Chicago Tribune Books. (8 April 1990): 1-4.

Review of The Coast of Chicago.

Grosch, Anthony R. “Book Reviews.” The Old Northwest 6, no. 4 (winter 1980): 400-03.

Review of The Coast of Chicago.

Nemanic, Gerald. “Chicago Writers Follow Tradition But Break New Trails.” Chicago Tribune Book World. (6 January 1985): 21-2.

Discusses the “new generation” of Chicago authors.

Additional coverage of Dybek's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group:...

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