Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Place of Memory

Book Reviewed: The Coast of Chicago, by Stuart Dybek

In every fiction writing class I've ever had, I've been assigned Stuart Dybek's short story, "Pet Milk."  There's a reason this happens.  It's one of those stories that's so perfect it hurts.  Informed by memory and a strong sense of place, it's only a few pages long but packs a pretty profound punch.  It's about first love and the excitment of youth and the experience of living in Chicago.  If you care about the art of short stories in any way, you have to read "Pet Milk" at some point in your life.

Yet, despite reading and loving "Pet Milk," I had never read the critically-beloved collection it came from, The Coast of Chicago.  I read Dybek's I Sailed with Magellan a few years ago, but I'm new to Coast.

It's a great collection, and it's all about memory and Chicago, two subjects I'm pretty fond of reading about.  Not every story grabbed me equally, but the ones that did will probably stick with me for some time.  There's "Blight," about a group of childhood friends as they grow up and apart.  There's the strange and witty "Death of a Right Fielder."  Then there's "Nighthawks," a kind of prose collage with multiple sections and stories.  Some of the passages in "Nighthawks" really took my breath away.  There's a part of this story called "Killing Time" that will ring painfully true for anyone who's ever been unemployed for a long period of time or who's ever spent significant time in the Art Institute.  As someone who's done both, I absolutely loved these four pages.  I think this book's worth reading just for this section's heartbreaker of a last line. 

What makes this collection so special is Dybek's familiarity with its setting and characters.  He's lived the lives of his characters; he's a genuine product of Chicago at its most raw and real.  I like a writer who can use his past and hometown as fodder for his work, and Dybek is an excellent example of this.  He's an expert, and as a reader, you're perfectly happy to follow him around the streets of Chicago's south side. 

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