The Coast of Chicago
I can still recall first reading Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t” in Antaeus (Issue No. 70, Spring 1993) and being dumbstruck by the beauty of the images—the teenagers on the beach tangled in their Navajo blanket, the coconut suntan oil and lipgloss-colored lake along the beach at day’s end, when “only the bodies of lovers remained, visible in the lightning flashes, scattered like the fallen on a battlefield…” *
If you’ve read Dybek’s stories, you know he works in the tradition of James Joyce and Sherwood Anderson, combining a strong sense of place with evocative, emotionally charged imagery. And The Coast of Chicago, chosen in 2001 as the inaugural selection for One Book, One Chicago, the city’s collective reading project, is a classic, both of the form and of author’s style. Dybek is known for his effortless prose and mastery of invention—as in the classic story, “Hot Ice“: “…the Greek butcher shop on Halstead with its pyramid of lamb skulls,” and the stained glass window of an angel at St. Procopius, “its colors like jewels and coals,” and the story’s central image, the saint, “a virgin, uncorrupted,” who local legend says was long ago “frozen in a block of ice” still contained an abandoned ice house.
There is the classic “Pet Milk,” as perfect as a story gets. It centers on the narrator’s memory of the canned milk swirling in the grandmother’s instant coffee, an image that spawns other images, her ancient yellowed radio “usually tuned to the polka station, though sometimes she’d miss it by half a notch and get the Greek station instead.” One image leads to another, and in a structure the writer Maud Casey brilliantly described as a spiral, like the swirling milk of the title, the images wind gradually inward to the story’s final moment. The Coast of Chicago also contains masterpieces like “Chopin in Winter,” and “Blight,” along with a series of interconnecting vignettes, all of which contain Dybek’s singular use of language and image.
Dybek’s collection has become a classic of contemporary literary fiction, and if you love gritty realism, a fabulist story line, and evocative prose, it’s not to be missed.
* “We Didn’t” is collected in I Sailed With Magellan (2003).