The Coast of Chicago: Stories

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Ask a Book Question: The 63rd in a Series (Chicago Stories)

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Rob writes in with this question:I’m a seventeen year old who is going to be spending five weeks this summer in Chicago (to be specific – Evanston, since I’ll be part of Northwestern’s summer high school music institute). I’m a life-long New Jerseyan, and have never been in the city of broad shoulders for longer than three days.So, since I like reading books about the place I’m visiting, I was wondering if you could recommend anything that captured the essence of Chicago – I’m looking for works that encapsulate Chicago in the same way Kavalier & Clay encapsulates New York.I was thinking about The Lazarus Project and Carl Sandburg’s work. Do you have any other ideas?Chicago has inspired some of America’s greatest fiction and continues to be a fruitful setting for contemporary writers. I’ve just completed The Lazarus Project (review hopefully forthcoming), and its twinned stories – set in Chicago 1908 and present day Eastern Europe – mine Chicago’s multicultural past and ignominious history. The book, based on the true story of the mysterious death of immigrant Lazarus Averbuch reminded me a lot of The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson’s non-fiction account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer who lurked in its shadows (my review here). Both Devil and Lazarus vividly evoke the chaos of Chicago, a turn of the century boomtown of slaughterhouses, nascent industry, and the first “skyscrapers” that was quickly aligning itself as the country’s center after only decades earlier being its frontier.An interest in this era in Chicago will inevitably lead one to Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 novel The Jungle is a muckraking, contemporary account of the slaughterhouse workers who drove Chicago’s economic engine. The novel is a landmark among American social novels.Jumping forward in time, Chicago produced one of America’s greatest novelists, Saul Bellow, who haunted the hauls of Northwestern in the 1930s. Garth writes that “the greatest Chicago novel ever is The Adventures of Augie March, which is highly recommended for someone who liked Kavalier & Clay.” This contention is hard to dispute.Patrick points us to another, more contemporary literary lodestar for Chicago: “The poet laureate of Chicago is Stuart Dybek (I mean, I don’t think he actually is, I just think he should be). The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed With Magellan are both absolute must reads. They both entirely take place in Chicago (mostly the South Side, but not exclusively). He’s one of my favorite authors, and somebody who should have a much larger audience.”Patrick also throws a more recent selection into the mix: “Also, it’s not like a totally Chicago Chicago book, but I think [Joshua Ferris’s] Then We Came to the End is about Chicago in a really interesting way, as it encapsulates life in the Loop, full of business people commuting from all the suburbs, folks who live in Lincoln Park, people who drive up from the South Side. Plus it’s really fun.”To these I would also add Adam Langer’s well received duo of books set in West Rogers Park, a neighborhood at the northern edge of the city not far from where I used to live: Crossing California and The Washington Story. Finally, anyone interested in Chicago fiction should consider Chris Ware’s landmark graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. It’s another twinned story, with threads taking place in the near present and during 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, for so many the moment of Chicago’s emergence. Ware’s pathos is haunting and his spare, eccentric drawings are mesmerizing. Along with Devil in the White City, it is a favorite of contemporary Chicagoans.We’ve undoubtedly skipped over much worthy Chicago literature, so please enlighten us with further suggestions in the comments. Rob, thanks for a great question!

Short Story Week: And May We Also Recommend


Recommended Collections:The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed with Magellan by Stuart DybekDybek owns a specific part of the literary universe, a several square-block section of the south side of Chicago. He focuses on that, hones it, and reproduces it beautifully. His stories – sentimental (but not sappy), funny, and moving – describe a world where cultures and generations rub against each other, sometimes producing sparks. If you don’t read collections in order, or if you happen upon Dybek’s stories in an anthology, start with “Hot Ice,” “Pet Milk,” or “Orchids.”Sixty Stories, by Donald Barthelme and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. GassBoth of these are challenging collections, or at least they were for me, yet both are also adventurous and mind-altering. Barthelme, who has experienced a renaissance of late, did more with the form of the story than anyone I can think of. His stories – brief, wild, audacious – will cure whatever boredom might have possessed you. Gass’ stories, typically quite long, describe the emotionally bleak and unforgiving Midwest, with its brief moments of untold beauty buried within quotidian horrors. At one moment, a Gass character might be counting the peas in his pot pie; in the next, he’s contemplating freedom in the backyard. The titular story contains what is, at the moment, my favorite sentence: “It’s true there are moments–foolish moments, ecstasy on a tree stump–when I’m all but gone, scattered I like to think like seed, for I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween.”Recommended Stories:”The Christian Roommates” from Early Stories by John UpdikeAn ode to the classic freshman double. This story pretty much was my first year of college. I played it pretty straight in high school, and had my mind completely blown open by all the nuts I met in school, including my freshman roommate [God bless you, Glen, you beautiful bastard]. Updike captures that so well that the first time I read this, I couldn’t believe it had been written before I was born.”The Fall of Edward Barnard” from The Collected Stories of W. Somerset MaughamSort of a precursor to The Razor’s Edge, this is the story of a man who goes to Tahiti to find his best friend, Edward Barnard, who’s fallen off the grid and who also happens to be engaged to his best friend. I spent two years of my life trying to adapt this story for the screen to no avail. If I were pressed, I’d say this is my favorite story.

More on Dybek: From the Archives

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News that Stuart Dybek, a great and overlooked short-story writer, had been awarded a MacArthur grant sent me back to the archives of the now-defunct Fabulous World of Hot Face for this review of 2003’s I Sailed With Magellan. As you can see below, I recommend that Dybek neophytes may want to skip around in this collection, or start with The Coast of Chicago.I Sailed With MagellanLike the Joyce of Dubliners, Stuart Dybek writes with an exquisite sense of place and an amazing sensitivity to the dreams and dislocations one encounters in the borderland between childhood and adulthood. His last work of fiction, The Coast of Chicago, is one of my favorite books, and I approached I Sailed With Magellan with high expectations. If The Coast of Chicago, with its unified setting, its young-to-old chronology, and its careful patterning (alternating short stories with lyrical “short shorts”), seemed more like a latter-day Winesburg, Ohio than a mere collection of stories, I Sailed With Magellan feels more like a group of very good stories than the “Novel-in-Verse” its title page insists it is. Here, Dybek preserves the setting and tone of his earlier work, but organizes his stories loosely around a central character: Perry Katzek. Like Kerouac’s Jack Duluoz, Perry seems pretty clearly to be a stand-in for his author, and the richness of lived experience fills to bursting the strongest stories here – “Song,” “Undertow,” “Blue Boy,” and “Je Reviens.” All four offer glimpses of Perry’s childhood in the Bronzeville section of Chicago. Another excellent quartet of stories – “Lunch at the Loyola Arms,” “Orchids,” “We Didn’t,” and “Que Quieres” – show Perry in various stages of a deferred maturity, and although they seem slightly less finished… well, so does adulthood; I’ll call it “evocative disarray” and chalk it up to authorial intent. Throughout, images and characters recur in the background. We see again and again morning glories and the spray of fire hydrants in summer and Perry’s uncle Lefty. These devices may justify the inclusion of “Breasts,” a novella largely unrelated to Dybek’s attempt at bildungsroman, but here, Dybek indulges his weaknesses – stagy dialogue, purple eroticism, and scenes and characters seemingly lifted from TV.Even sans “Breasts,” I Sailed With Magellan doesn’t succeed as a novel. Broken into discrete chunks, Perry’s journey seems stripped of causality. For example, his mother’s madness – alluded to in several stories – can remain, in a story collection, undramatized. In a novel, however, such a powerful influence on the protagonist wouldn’t remain merely implicit. Other experiences that seem to lie at the heart of Perry’s (and perhaps Dybek’s) character stay in the background, as well, and while Dybek gestures in a few stories toward focusing this book on the relationship between Perry and his Uncle Lefty, the uncle disappears for long stretches. It is always a pleasure to read Dybek, and some of his best work is here, but I Sailed With Magellan argues less for a reenvisioning of the novel’s possibilities than the creation of some genre between collection and novel that might serve Dybek’s intentions better than the “Novel in Stories” seems to.

2007’s Literary Geniuses

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The annual MacArthur “Genius” Fellows have been named. This award gives people from diverse fields $500,000 with “no strings attached,” for “exceptional creativity, as demonstrated through a track record of significant achievement, and manifest promise for important future advances.” There are typically a handful of literary types among the scientists, artists, and musicians who become Fellows. This year, by my count, there are three.Stuart Dybek, as a highly regarded short story writer and novelist, is the best-known among them. When most people think of Dybek, they think of Chicago, where much of his writing is set. He’s also the writer in residence at nearby Northwestern University. I haven’t read any Dybek, but when I do, I’ll likely start with The Coast of Chicago or I Sailed with Magellan.Peter Cole is co-founder and co-editor of Ibis Editions, “a small press and non-profit organization founded in Jerusalem in 1998 and dedicated to the publication of Levant-related books of poetry and belletristic prose. The press publishes translations from Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, French, and the other languages of the region. New writing is published, though special attention is paid to overlooked works from the recent and distant past.” Among Cole’s more recent efforts is The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492Lynn Nottage is a Brooklyn-based playwright. According to the Hartford Courant, “Nottage is developing a workshop production at Chicago’s Goodman Theater of ‘Ruined,’ set in a mining town in the Congo rainforest. She recently workshopped another new play for the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, an adaptation of slave narratives for the stage. She is also working on a children’s musical ‘Sweet Billy and the Zulus’ for the Philadelphia-based touring company, Colored Girl Productions.” Her most recently published plays are Intimate Apparel and Fabulation.

City of The Big Shoulders


The title of this post is taken from a poem called “Chicago” by Carl Sandburg. The reference is to the men of the meat-packing industry, and the nickname came to represent the burly, blue-collar mentality of the place. At least, that’s what I’ve gathered so far. Mrs. Millions and I are more or less fully relocated in Chicago. We found an apartment and we’ll be moved in by the first of the month. The apartment is located in a neighborhood called Ravenswood. It sounds like something out of Edgar Allan Poe, no? We’ve been here about a week, and we’ve spent a lot of time driving around, looking for a place to live and getting to know the city. So far, it seems like a great place. Around every corner there seems to be a row of shops, cafes and restaurants, and driving by Wrigley when a game is on is remarkable. I can see that Chicago has its own very distinct identity, and being here makes me want to read some books that are about or set in the city. Some candidates: American Pharaoh by Adam Cohen, The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, Crossing California by Adam Langer, and The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek.

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