Adam's Reviews > The Coast of Chicago: Stories

The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek
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's review
Dec 09, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction
Read in September, 2011

Dybek is a wonderful writer. Many of the stories in this collection read like they are dreams being recalled. I imagine these stories with a fuzzy white frame around them. You know--the way a dream sequence is portrayed on a cheesy television sit-com. But Dybek’s stories are not cheesy. Although I would say that while some of their themes are mature, their presentation is pretty PG. Even the book’s cover illustration and text is hazy, suggesting dreaminess.

Actually, my TV comments may not be as random as I thought they were when I wrote them a second ago—Dybek’s stories are pretty visual. Characters are sketches; memories, while the setting is unifying and constant in the collection. Dybek allows us to access mid-century working-class immigrant south-side Chicago. It’s the time when and place where many of my friends’ parents grew up—sons and daughters of Poles, Lithuanians, Italians, Czechs, Irish. My dad, the son of an immigrant and a Chicago northsider, was born in ’46; Dybek was born in ’42. So I have a frame of reference. Dybek fills this frame of scattered tales I’ve heard from others with a color and texture.

The title of another book by Dybek is “Childhood and Other Neighborhoods.” It’s a marvelous title, and a pretty good way of describing his approach to the stories in “The Coast of Chicago.” He visits childhood as one would visit the old neighborhood. Things are a little different each time you go back. You change, and the place changes. He captures the south side well, describing its apartments and taverns, its train viaducts and its bridges that cross the canal and river.

As much as I love his portrayals of his south-side home, I also loved the stories involving other neighborhoods. “Farwell,” named after the north-side street, is one of great descriptions of Chicago winter in the collection, taking place at the home of a professor near Loyola on the lake. And there’s a great scene in another story in which the narrator takes the El train north for the first time to visit a girl he met, not realizing how far away it is and how long the ride is. But perhaps my favorite story is “Chopin in Winter,” a melancholy tale about the families living in the narrator’s building, and the neighbor girl’s piano-playing:

“‘She’s playing her way through the waltzes,’ Dzia-Dzia told me, speaking as usual in his low, raspy voice as if we were having a confidential discussion. ‘She’s young but already knows Chopin’s secret—a waltz can tell more about the soul than a hymn’” (21).

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Beth I'm so glad you pointed out the particular greatness of "Chopin in Winter"! That was my favorite as well. The line you quoted really perfectly displays what's great about Dybeck's style. And the one about the professor was so short but I also consider if a favorite. It was a perfect introduction to the feel of this collection.

I definitely have to pick up Childhood and Other Neighborhoods next.

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