Dickinson, Charles 1951-
DICKINSON, Charles 1951-
Born June 4, 1951, in Detroit, MI; son of Thomas (in sales) and Barbara (an ambulance driver; maiden name, Forrester) Dickinson; married Donna Gawron (a figure skating instructor), September 6, 1978; children: Louis, Casey. Education: University of Kentucky, B.A., 1973.
Home—Palatine, IL. Agent—Robin Straus, 229 East 79th St., New York, NY 10021.
Journalist and author. Sun-Times, Chicago, IL, copyeditor, 1983-89; Chicago Tribune, Chicago, IL, assistant metropolitan editor, 1989—.
Illinois Arts Council grant, 1982; Great Lakes Colleges Association new writers award for fiction, 1984, for Waltz in Marathon; short stories "Risk" and "Child in the Leaves" selected for O. Henry collections, 1984 and 1989, respectively; Friends of American Writers top prize, 1986, for Crows.
Waltz in Marathon (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1983.
Crows (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.
With or Without (stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
The Widows' Adventures (novel), Morrow (New York, NY), 1989.
Rumor Has It (novel), Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.
A Shortcut in Time (novel), Forge (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor of short stories and reviews to periodicals, including Esquire, New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Pikestaff Forum, New York Times Book Review, Sun-Times (Chicago, IL), and Detroit News.
New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani observed that fiction writer Charles Dickinson "has demonstrated a decided taste for parables." In his first novel, Waltz in Marathon, the shifting fortunes of a gentlemanly small-town loan shark named Harry Waltz reflect an America of changing values in the late 1960s; where once debtors repaid their loans for honor's sake, Waltz is now confronted with delinquent clients who scoff at his polite reminders. Compounding his bafflement over a system of business values gone awry is the widower's volatile personal life—a favorite son is killed in Vietnam, a second son is incarcerated for applying brutality to his father's profession, his twin daughters are in love with the same shiftless cad, and Waltz finds himself in an unlikely yet surprisingly sweet romance with a younger, independent career woman who becomes pregnant with his child. Writing in the Chicago Tribune Book World, Bruce Allen noted that "Dickinson… capably charts his hero's bemused passage through this sea of troubles.… The novel observes and presents Harry Waltz in a pleasing variety of circumstances." "The Waltzes are a fascinating bunch," Detroit News reviewer Peter Ross thought, "and Dickinson's understanding of the delicate machinery of the family allows him to bring each of them to full and vibrant life as well as to fit them into the bigger picture."
While reviewers praised Dickinson's sensitive depiction of the woes and pleasures that attend the lives of ordinary people (and—like Washington Post Book World critic Alan Ryan—particularly welcomed "an older man portrayed as a real human being, warm, suffering, sexual"), they were not as taken with his vision of Harry Waltz, imperial businessman. In the New York Times Book Review Julian Moynahan remarked that the mythic aura the author attaches to his central character is "contrived, inauthentic and exaggerated"; "it's not enough that Harry should be the happy genius of his household," the critic explained, "but he must be Marathon's genius incarnate, the tallest man in town as well as the richest, the scion of a family famous for producing identical twins and one son in each generation who lives to be one hundred." Moynahan was also bothered by Harry's hypocritical rationalizations about his usurious activities. Likewise feeling that Dickinson overstates his protagonist's appeal, Allen expressed, "Most troublesome of all is the significance implanted in Harry's choice of profession: He's held up as an old-fashioned man of principle, an idealist whose belief that people really will be as good as their word justifies his actions; indeed Dickinson almost sanctifies him." The reviewer ultimately deemed the novel "grounded in a fantasized view of the relationship between human character and destiny" and thus "unconvincing."
In a review for the New York Times, however, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wagered that Dickinson well appreciated the ironies posed by his principled usurer; maintaining that such self-contradictory behavior makes all the novel's characters interesting, the critic added, "It isn't so much villainry they represent as a monumental ordinariness that is fascinating." Lehmann-Haupt judged Waltz in Marathon a "fine first novel," an assessment shared by many more reviewers. "The dialogue is crisply believable—sometimes plain spoken, sometimes quite funny. And, the story's working-class background is made credible through dozens of finely chosen small-town details," complimented Allen. "The strength of this narrative lies in its authenticity," Moynahan found. "The distinctive… social patterns of a long-established and important American region [the Midwest] are rendered realistically and vividly but not without humor and surprise…. A further distinction of Mr. Dickinson's prose is its strongly pictorial quality, making one think sometimes of Edward Hopper and the best traditions of American art." And commending the author's "feel for middle-America" as well, Ross described Waltz in Marathon as "warm, witty, meticulously crafted,… original, engaging." He decided, "This is a book to read, and Dickinson a writer to watch."
The title of Dickinson's second novel, Crows, alludes to the captivating anthropomorphic crow legends created by small-town college biology professor Ben Ladysmith. They are retold by his young sportswriter friend Robert Cigar after the teacher drowns in a boating accident. Ladysmith's legacy, the tales enhance the already mythic allure of the popular academic, a fascination heightened by the fact that his body cannot be found. Obsessed with understanding the incongruities that marked his friend's life and death, Robert moves in with the unwilling Ladysmith family after the newspaper he writes for folds, spending summers diving for Ben's body. Reviewing the novel for the Detroit News, Alida Becker observed, "Robert is obviously searching for more than the earthly remains of his biology teacher." New York Times Book Review critic Douglas Unger decided that Ladysmith's fables—which reveal a sophisticated, virtuous crow civilization—"function as counterpoint to the events that lead Robert to conclude that Ben was not quite the ethical man he once thought he knew." As the young man slowly discovers the individual inside the myth, he also goes from a freeloader in the Ladysmith household to a responsible wage earner who uses his good fortune to ease the family's burdens. A late autumn dive in the lake finally yields Ben's body, and the deceased's grip on Robert, the Ladysmith family, and the town is exhausted as last. Becker described the focus of Crows as "Robert's exploration of love and commitment, of the way memories can bind and release, and of a person's need to carve out his own private domain."
Deeming Crows even better than Dickinson's fine Waltz in Marathon, Becker wrote that the author "has managed to take the warmth and wisdom that made his first book so special and give them even more strength and shading"; the reviewer also commended the story's "deft juxtaposition of Ben's yarns and Robert's reality,… a subtle but suspenseful questioning of Ben's fate, and… the interplay of a lively, engaging cast of characters." Lehmann-Haupt likewise called the book "charming and touching, an impressive advance from his promising first novel," relating: "There are no clichés in 'Crows.'… Mr. Dickinson has found a new way of expressing the contradictions of small-town mid-American life—of reconciling the silliness with the passion, the pettiness with the nobility." Admiring passages of "wit and lyrical beauty" in the novel, Chicago Tribune critic Bernard Rodgers added that "when it comes to his characters… Dickinson… seldom takes a false step." Crows features "a novel full of the mysteries of character," he continued, "by a writer whose greatest strength is characterization.… [Dickinson] is attracted to and has a talent for creating believable and charming eccentrics.… He treats each of his characters with both sympathy and affection." And in a review for the Times Literary Supplement Fernanda Eberstadt judged Dickinson "one of the finest… of regional American writers" and Crows an "immensely persuasive novel, compelling in its human sympathy, its low-keyed generosity and its feel for the ordinary." The critic stated, "Dickinson draws on popular culture without irony or contempt and portrays ordinary families with understanding. The wry and unsentimental appreciation of small-town life in a hard climate, likeable characters endowed with pluck and common sense, a quiet charge of suspense and a resolution at once happy and convincing, makes Crows and its author a welcome find."
Many of the characters that appear in Dickinson's short-story collection With or Without are working-class people leading unassuming lives. Theirs is a world where dreams fade and everyday demands take their place; still, as New York Times reviewer Kakutani pointed out, "Mr. Dickinson possesses something of Sherwood Anderson's sympathy for the confused denizens of small-town America; and like Anderson, he not only chronicles their frustrations and groping failures but also bestows upon many of them a vision—or at least a glimpse—of freedom, of the possibility of escape from the discouraging necessities of the daily grind." Writing for the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley reported that in these stories "relatively little actually takes place but significant emotional journeys are often made." He continued, "This is a smart, knowing, perceptive book that, among other interesting things, explores the ways in which dignity and self-respect can be discovered in seemingly unprepossessing lives."
Noting Dickinson's earlier predilection for the parabolic, Kakutani determined that many of the tales in With or Without "are animated by a similar awareness of symbolism—a few take their entire form and momentum from the author's manipulation of extended metaphors." (In one story, for example, a man in a repressive marriage turns bold when playing Risk, a board game of war and world domination.) While admitting the "flimsier offerings in this volume often do have the contrived feel of an O. Henry tale," the critic maintained that most succeed; "by anchoring the larger, symbolic movements of his narrative in a welter of personal and domestic details," related Kakutani, "Mr. Dickinson achieves the sort of organic symmetry that makes the reader feel happily enmeshed in his characters' lives rather than painfully aware of the thematic patterning of the story." Other reviewers offered similar assessments, with Yardley citing "far more successes than failures" in the volume and New York Times Book Review critic Richard Perry deciding that "Mr. Dickinson does not slip often." And writing in a review for Tribune Books that "within the bounds of the conventional well-made story [Dickinson] can surprise us at almost every turn," Alan Cheuse compared the collection to "a box of chocolates in which every piece is a coveted nut."
As in critiques of Dickinson's earlier writings, reviewers of With or Without praised the author's caring depiction of ordinary people. "He actually seems to like and respect the characters he creates, and he conveys his affection with admirable sympathy," related Yardley, adding that "heroes and villains are readily identifiable, but Dickinson imbues all of them with sufficient complexity so that the grays of the situation, as well as the blacks and whites, are self-evident." The critic decided that, like most people, Dickinson's characters—"in their own individual and sometimes unexpected ways"—manage and accept whatever life hands them, even when "they end up with rather less than they had wished." "Dickinson finds honor and dignity in that small struggle," Yardley concluded, "and it is this that gives his stories their own honor and dignity."
Dickinson draws on his own experiences as an assistant metropolitan editor in Rumor Has It, a novel about a fictitious Chicago newspaper, the Bugle, which, according to rumors, will cease publication in two weeks. As reporters leak stories to the prosperous Morning Quill, the Bugle 's only competitor, the newsroom is in a state of chaos while metropolitan associate editor Danny Fain struggles to meet a deadline that ultimately consumes him. While riding home on a train on Halloween, Danny sees a young person dressed as a ghost run over by a hit-and-run driver. The train is moving so fast that Danny cannot tell where it happened, so he dispatches a reporter to the scene. The reporter disappears and Danny is preoccupied with meeting his deadline. "A central ethical question develops and becomes the core of the book," explained Hiley Ward in Editor & Publisher. A Publishers Weekly reviewer considered Rumor Has It "More topical, comical and widely accessible than Dickinson's earlier work" and "immediately engaging."
In A Shortcut in Time, Dickinson ponders the morality of time travel. The hero of the novel, Josh Winkler, is an unsuccessful artist supported by his wife, a hardworking pediatrician with a stable practice. One day, Josh discovers how to travel back fifteen minutes in time by running down a certain path during a thunderstorm. Shortly thereafter, a mysterious young woman named Constance appears and claims to be living in 1908. Word of Josh's ability and Constance's claim spreads around town and people begin canceling their appointments with Josh's wife, who is convinced that Constance's story is a hoax. Josh eventually learns how to travel back eighty years. He contemplates altering the future when his own teenage daughter is transported back in time and will die in an influenza epidemic unless Josh can get her out.
A Shortcut in Time was generally well received by critics. Noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "The reader shares Josh's highs and lows in a time-twisting game of blind man's bluff over which he has little control." Writing in Library Journal, Jennifer Baker noted that A Shortcut in Time "proposes fascinating questions about time, history and sanity and illustrates how actions, even with the best of intentions, can have dire consequences." Booklist's Whitney Scott felt that Dickinson "conjures a notably mundane environment, then makes it extraordinary." While A Shortcut in Time is suspenseful, it moves at a slow pace, much like a nineteenth-century novel. A Kirkus Reviewer felt that, because of this, the book is a "little too laid-back for its own good," but added that "it does rally itself at the end with some unexpected developments to come out a genial little piece of time-travel trickery." A Publishers Weekly reviewer dubbed the book "a low-key gem."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Antioch Review, spring, 1984.
Booklist, December 1, 1990, review of Rumor Has It, p. 716; December 15, 2002, Whitney Scott, review of A Shortcut in Time, p. 740.
Book World, February 3, 1991, review of Rumor Has It, p. 9.
Chicago, March, 1991, Laurie Levy, review of Rumor Has It, pp. 110-112.
Chicago Tribune, April 21, 1985.
Chicago Tribune Book World, December 18, 1983.
Detroit News, January 8, 1984; April 21, 1985.
Editor and Publisher, August 10, 1991, Hiley Ward, review of Rumor Has It, p. 25.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 1990, review of Rumor Has It, p. 1478; November 1, 2002, review of A Shortcut in Time, p. 1577.
Library Journal, October 1, 1983; November 15, 1990, Robert H. Donahugh, review of Rumor Has It, p. 90; January, 2003, Jennifer Baker, review of A Shortcut in Time, p. 152.
Los Angeles Times, December 20, 1983.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 23, 1985; August 26, 1990, review of The Widows' Adventures, p. 10; January 20, 1991, review of Rumor Has It, p. 6.
New Yorker, May 13, 1991, review of Rumor Has It, p. 110.
New York Times, November 8, 1983; April 26, 1985; May 2, 1987; January 31, 1991, review of Rumor Has It, p. C22.
New York Times Book Review, November 13, 1983; June 30, 1985; June 21, 1987; January 20, 1991, David Murray, review of Rumor Has It, p. 12; January 31, 1991, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Rumor Has It, p. B2; April 5, 1992, review of Rumor Has It, p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, July 27, 1990, review of The Widows' Adventures, p. 22; November 23, 1990, review of Rumor Has It, pp. 54-56; February 8, 1991, Molly McQuade, "Charles Dickinson: The Journalist and Novelist Combines Both Worlds in His Funny, Controversial New Book," p. 40; March 2, 1992, review of Rumor Has It, p. 63; November 18, 2002, review of A Shortcut in Time, pp. 42-44.
Times Literary Supplement, November 22, 1985.
Tribune Books, April 19, 1987; January 6, 1991, review of Rumor Has It, p. 1; January 13, 1991, review of Rumor Has It, p. 3; April 12, 1992, review of Rumor Has It, p. 8.
Washington Post, April 29, 1987.
Washington Post Book World, January 1, 1984.
Washington State Bar News, August, 1992, Lindsay Thompson, review of Rumor Has It, pp. 57-59.*