Stuart Dybek's story "Hot Ice" takes place in a changing working-class neighborhood of Chicago during the 1970s. As is typical of much of his work, Dybek mixes realism with fantasy to create a specific sense of place. At the center of the story is an urban legend about a girl who was drowned in a lake in the nearby park decades earlier and then frozen in the local ice house and the miracles that people around the neighborhood attribute to her. Her story affects the lives of three young men: Pancho, who is fanatically religious to the point of mental instability; his brother Manny, the cynic; and Eddie, who feels both the weight of tradition and the struggle to live a good life in a harsh environment. As they move through their days, Dybek renders with precise clarity the details of a city in transition, mixing memories of ice delivery and sharpening carts and streetcars and riding boxcars with the oppressive, looming presence of the county jail and the boarded windows of a neighborhood that is slipping away from memory.
The story was published in Antaeus in 1984, and the following year it was chosen for the O. Henry Award for short fiction. It is one of four Dybek stories that have won O. Henrys, three of them coming from the collection in which "Hot Ice" appears, The Coast of Chicago. In 2004, The Coast of Chicago was chosen for the city's "One Book, One Chicago" program, which encouraged not just students but all citizens to participate in a city-wide discussion club about the book.
Stuart Dybek was born on April 10, 1942 into a Polish family, in a Chicago neighborhood similar to the one in this story. He attended Catholic grammar and high schools and then enrolled at Loyola University, on the other side of the city where a more urbane culture prevailed. He was the first person in his family to go to college. His original major was pre-medicine, but he switched to English after a year. Still, he did not think of becoming a writer. After earning a bachelor's degree from Loyola in 1964, he was a case worker for the Cook County Department of Public Aid, a job that he pursued out of a drive to work for social justice. At the same time, he worked on his master's degree from Loyola, which he earned in 1967. He married his wife Caryn in 1966.
After earning his first master's degree, Dybek went into teaching, first at a Catholic high school in the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove and then for two years at Wayne Aspinal School in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands—a lush tropic environment that was about as far from his upbringing as he could get. In 1968 he entered the prestigious Writers' Workshop program at the University of Iowa, earning a master of fine arts degree in 1973. He then went to Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where he was still teaching as of 2005.
In 1979, Dybek published his first book of poetry, Brass Knuckles. His first book of short stories, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, came out the following year and earned him much critical praise. The Coast of Chicago, the collection from which this story comes, was published a decade later, in 1990. By the time of its publication, Dybek had been honored with numerous writing awards, including a Whiting Writers' Award, a Guggenheim, an NEA fellowship, a Nelson Algren Award, four O. Henry Awards, a PEN/Malamud Award, and a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2003, he published the story collection I Sailed with Magellan.
"Hot Ice" is divided into sections with a topic title for each. It begins with the story of girl who had been molested then drowned in the park lagoon about thirty years earlier, during World War II. According to the story, her father found her body and traveled with it on a streetcar to an icehouse across the street from the Cook County Jail, at 26th and California, in Chicago. Her body is rumored to still be frozen there and to have special, magical powers: Big Antek, an old neighborhood alcoholic, claims that he once locked himself in the meat locker of a butcher shop where he worked and the girl's frozen body, temporarily stored there, kept him alive throughout the weekend. The nun at the local school believes the girl should be canonized as a saint.
This story is discussed by the three main characters of "Hot Ice": Pancho Santora, his brother Manny, and their friend Eddie Kapusta. Pancho, who has always been deeply religious, believes that she does hold magical powers, though the other two doubt the story, especially the part about her father riding on the streetcar with a dripping corpse from the lagoon. Pancho asserts his belief in modern saints, referring to Roberto Clemente, a baseball player who died in a plane crash while on his way to help earthquake victims in 1971.
The second section begins with Pancho already gone from the neighborhood and in jail. Eddie and Manny walk through the neighborhood, as they do on most nights, to go to the Cook County Jail, where Pancho is being held for a crime that is not clearly identified in the story. At his sentencing, the judge offered Pancho the chance to go into the military instead of going to jail, but Pancho, who has been fixated with religion since he was a little boy, laughed and sang to himself and claimed that his one goal in life was to pose for the pictures on holy cards. Manny visited him every week for three weeks, but Pancho eventually asked him to quit coming because he did not want to be reminded of the world outside.
Passing through the neighborhood, Manny and Eddie reflect on the signs of desolation: empty storefronts, wrecking balls, and railroad tracks that have been paved over. When they reach the jail, they walk around it, shouting Pancho's name. Inside, prisoners call back to them, mocking. They ask if anyone knows Pancho Santora but are told that the name is not familiar.
At the start of this segment, Dybek reveals that Pancho has disappeared while in jail, with no definitive explanation of where he has gone. There are dozens of theories, ranging from his having committed suicide or been murdered to his having escaped and gone to Mexico or just to the North Side of the city. Some people claim to have seen him walking the streets or in church. He has become a legendary figure.
When the chapter opens it is Easter Week. In the months since the last chapter, Eddie Kapusta has only seen Manny Santora once, at Christmas time. They ran into each other at a bar, then walked over to the jail, where they threw snowballs at the wall. Now, on Tuesday before Easter, Eddie goes to Manny's house, where they fall into a casual conversation, as if they had not been separated for months.
They go back to the jail, where they once had hollered up at the building when they believed that Pancho was inside. There, they shout again, but instead of joking with the inmates, Manny taunts them, calling them racial and ethnic names and reminding them that they are trapped without freedom. When Eddie tries to stop him, he shouts louder, with worse insults, until the people inside take up a chant for him to shut up and the guards in the tower turn their searchlights on. Eddie finally persuades him to flee, and as they stand behind the icehouse across the street Manny talks about his anger toward everyone inside the jail, from the prisoners to the guards to the wall itself. He says he is going back the next night, and Eddie goes along, afraid to let him go alone.
The next night Manny again shouts obscenities at the jail until searchlights and sirens drive them away. Hiding by the railroad tracks, Manny recalls a time when he was young, when he and some friends rode the freight train that ran on those tracks east to the lake shore. Eddie says he is not going to the jail with him again, and Manny agrees to do something else the following night.
On Thursday night, they take drugs and carouse the city, passing a bottle of wine between them. Eddie leads the way to a nightclub with a neon window display that he admires and explains that his hobby has always been looking at window decorations.
When they pass by an open fire hydrant, Manny says that he can smell the water of Lake Michigan coming out of it. It reminds him of when his family used to go to the lakefront at night to fish for smelt, a small silvery fish that is captured in nets by the thousands. Since Eddie does not know about smelt, they take a bus to the lake. On the way Manny tells a story about one time when he was young and swam out away from the shore, how he wanted to keep swimming away but returned when he heard his frantic uncle calling for him.
After taking amphetamines all night, they take quaaludes as the sun comes up. They sit talking at Manny's kitchen table for a long time and then remember that it is Good Friday. Manny wants to follow a ritual that Pancho made up—going to services at seven churches on Good Friday. Eddie goes along with him, though he can hardly keep awake. While Manny goes to the front of each church to observe the service, Eddie sits in the back. At the last one, before falling asleep, he realizes that the emptiness he has always felt is a sense of grief for the living.
The final section of the story starts with the perspective of Big Antek, the neighborhood alcoholic who claims to once have been saved from freezing by the girl in ice. He has recently returned to the neighborhood after having been in the Veterans Administration hospital, and he feels that the neighborhood has changed in the weeks while he was gone.
Eddie and Manny approach him, laughing and drinking and in a good mood, and offer to buy him a drink, which Antek refuses. When they start mocking the story of the frozen girl he becomes angry. Eddie tells him that the icehouse where she is supposedly stored is slated for demolition. Antek goes with them to the icehouse and stands outside while Manny and Eddie climb up the wrecker's crane to enter the building through the roof.
From outside the building, Antek imagines them working their way around in the dark, lighting a road flare that they stole, passing huge blocks of thawing ice until, in the building's basement, they find what they are looking for: a beautiful blonde girl encased in a block of crystal clear ice.
Having found her, Eddie and Manny decide that they cannot just leave her there. They ease the block onto an old railroad handcar that is on the track that backs up into the building and start the car in motion. The tracks, as Manny observed earlier, go to the lakefront, and they decide to take her to the lake and set her in the water, where she will finally be released from the ice.
Big Antek is a local character known throughout the neighborhood. He is an alcoholic who has worked at numerous butcher shops, cutting off fingers out of clumsiness and drunkenness until he only has a few left. Young people like Eddie and the Santora brothers go to Antek because they know that he will buy liquor for them.
During World War II, Big Antek served in the navy, ending up in a hospital in Manila. When he returned home to his neighborhood he found his name included on a plaque commemorating those who had died in battle. Some time later, when he was already solidly within his cycle of being fired for on-the-job drunkenness at butcher shops, he locked himself in the freezer of one on a Friday night and claims that he would have died if it had not been for the legendary girl drowned in the lagoon, whose body, frozen in a block of ice, was in the freezer, radiating energy that magically kept Antek alive until Monday morning.
At the end of the story, Eddie and Manny, who have been out all night, come to Antek to ask him to buy them some more alcohol. They tell him that the old icehouse, where the girl's frozen body is allegedly stored, is marked for demolition. Antek convinces them to go there and try to retrieve the body. He waits outside while the younger men go in and imagines their movements inside, seeing in his mind's eye the hallways that they would go down and blocks of ice melting in front of them until they actually find the girl.
Eddie is one of the main characters in this story. It is through his perspective that readers are first told the story of the girl frozen in ice, with the details that Eddie remembers hearing ever since his childhood. He is a young man of Polish descent in a neighborhood that is increasingly becoming Mexican. He is close friends with Pancho and Manny Santora.
Eddie, whose last name is the Polish word for "cabbage," is characterized as an observer. While Pancho is a religious fanatic and Manny is a realist, Eddie does not have any such clear-cut perspective. Instead, he is noted for his devotion to his friends. For a long time during the period covered by the story, he loses contact with Manny because he has to quit high school and work a night job to pay his bills, but then, one spring day months after they have seen each other, he goes to Manny's apartment, and they resume their friendship just as it had been before. When Manny turns angry about losing Pancho and goes to the county jail to shout obscenities at those inside, Eddie would like to stay away, but he feels obliged to go along rather than letting Manny get into trouble alone.
While they are out on the street drinking, Eddie takes Manny to see one of his favorite window displays, the neon palm tree at the Coconut Club. He explains that his hobby ever since he was young has been looking at the decorations in windows, indicating that he is more of an observer in life than a participant. While Manny attends Good Friday mass, Eddie sits in the back of the church. It is there that he realizes that his life has been full of mourning for the living, which would account for his affection for the way the neighborhood once was but will not be any more.
In the end, though, Eddie shakes off his moroseness and becomes an active participant, presumably helping Manny steal the frozen girl from the icehouse and take her to the lake, where she is set loose from the suspended animation that has held her for decades.
In the story, Eddie describes Manny as a realist. He is one only by contrast to his older brother Pancho, who spends his childhood fantasizing about being a religious figure. In grammar school, Manny found it difficult to deal with the nuns who considered him a disappointment after his pious brother, and so he transferred from the Catholic school to the public school, which he seldom bothered to attend.
When Pancho is in jail, Manny is devoted to him, visiting him regularly until Pancho asks him to stop; after that, Manny still goes to the jail with Eddie, walking around the walls at night, shouting out Pancho's name. After Pancho disappears, Manny becomes angry and abusive when he goes to the wall of the jail, shouting offensive comments that make the prisoners inside angry enough to chant in unison against him. He continues to go back, taking a chance that the guards will arrest him, until Eddie refuses to go with him, at which point he loses his anger almost immediately and gamely offers to do something else, as if he had not been full of rage just moments before.
Manny's devotion to the memory of Pancho drives him to follow a ritual that Pancho made up of going to seven churches on Good Friday, even though he and Eddie have been out all night drinking and taking drugs and are beyond the point of exhaustion. While Eddie finds it difficult to keep up, Manny follows the ceremonies with the interest Pancho would have shown.
Manny's true personality is shown in a childhood memory that he shares with Eddie. He recalls being at the lakefront once in the middle of the night while his family was fishing for smelt. He swam away from shore, relishing his freedom and the touch of the water, only coming back because he thinks of his uncle on the pier, desperately calling for him. His dream of escape is mirrored in the end when they leave to release the girl in ice at about the same place in the lake, giving the freedom that Manny once desired.
Pancho is the oldest of the three friends who prowl around together at the beginning of this story, the older brother of Manny. He is devoutly religious and always has been, though his fascination with religion manifests itself in unique ways. As a child, he pretended to be a priest when he was playing in the back yard with the other children, which led to his nickname, Padrecito, or Little Priest. He served as an altar boy and spent money on different colored shoes so that they would match the different colored vestments that priests wore on various feast days. He believes in the miraculous powers of the girl in ice because he believes in miracles in general. The nuns at his grammar school love Pancho, and later in his life, after he has fallen into trouble with the law, Eddie notes that Pancho would have been fine being an altar boy all his life, that it was his vocation.
In high school Pancho is a member of a street gang called the Saints. He is arrested on a charge that Dybek does not explain in the story, and at his trial laughs at the judge who tries offering him the option of going into the military instead of going to jail. In jail, Pancho's spirit deteriorates. After a few months he tells his brother to stop visiting, because he does not want to be reminded of the outside world until he can go into it again.
Pancho's eventual fate is not explicitly given: everyone in the neighborhood knows that he is gone from the county jail, but there are dozens of rumors about what happened to him. Some people say that he hanged himself or was killed by another inmate; others say that he became a trustee and escaped; others say that he was transferred to another jail for the mentally ill; and others say they have seen him walking the streets of the neighborhood or lighting a candle in church or riding by on an elevated train. In the end, he has become as much of a neighborhood legend as the girl frozen in ice.
One of the most prevalent themes in this story is religion, in particular how Pancho Santora relates to Catholicism. Pancho is described from the start as believing in "everything—ghosts, astrology, legends." In particular, he focuses his willingness to believe on the religion in which he is raised. As a small boy he dresses up like a priest and pretends to hold Mass in his back yard. When he is old enough, he becomes an altar boy, whose job it is to assist the priest in serving the Mass.
The nuns at the Catholic school admire Pancho because he is so devoted to his duties as an altar boy. He believes that he has a guardian angel, which is a specifically Catholic concept. He also does penance during Lent, inflicting pain on himself and offering up his suffering for the souls in purgatory. By the time he is an adolescent and in trouble with the law, he ruins his chance to avoid jail time by being glib with the judge, wearing his necktie like a headband and telling the judge that he plans to grow up to pose for holy cards.
Pancho's fixation with Catholicism is easy to understand: he lives in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood. The neighborhood is changing from Polish to Hispanic, and both populations have strong ties to the Catholic Church. One sign of the Catholic influence on the neighborhood is the very fact that Manny and Eddie can find seven churches within walking distance on Good Friday. Another is the hymn, "Tantum Ergo," which they hear even as they are walking up the street. Dybek reinforces the reader's awareness of religion by marking time in terms of the Christian calendar, with scenes set at Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, etc.
"Hot Ice" often relates events from a communal perspective, giving readers facts as they are understood by everyone who lives in the neighborhood. The first case of this is the initial story of the girl in ice. The details given are identified as being the ones Eddie Kapusta heard, but it is also clear that the story is known by all. Everyone knows Big Antek's story, too: how he once was saved by the girl in ice and how he has lost his fingers working at a succession of butcher shops. The communal perspective is made even clearer when Pancho disappears from the county jail: stories come in from all over the neighborhood, with rumors of sightings and speculation, but no one, not even Pancho's own brother, knows for sure what happened to him. All of these theories suggest a community of people who struggle to answer the same question, who know each other, talk to each other, and are aware of significant events in one another's life.
This story could not have taken place before 1971 because the death of Roberto Clemente, is mentioned, which occurred that year. Still, there is much about the environment surrounding Eddie, Manny, and Pancho that hearkens back to a more distant past, particularly to the period just after World War II. The most direct connection to this time is Big Antek, with whom they interact regularly, if only to have him buy liquor for them. The war and the injuries he sustained in it changed Antek's life and are probably the cause of his drinking problem, which has given him a skewed outlook, making him believe he was saved by the frozen girl. Big Antek lives in the past, in his memories of ice delivery trucks and rag carts and Bing Crosby playing on tavern jukeboxes, and he tries to make the young people see that history and care about it.
Topics For Further Study
- The story explains that Big Antek came home from World War II to find himself listed on a plaque of people who had died in the war. Research the story of someone who was erroneously listed as dead in war, in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, or in Hurricane Katrina, and write a short story about how their family dealt with finding out they were alive.
- Read about the lives of Catholic saints and prepare a chart explaining which ones you think would be Pancho's favorites and why.
- Find a modern myth in your area that is similar to the story of the girl frozen in the ice, and report to your class on what is known about how this myth began.
- Diagnose Pancho's psychological state, from the beginning of the story until the people of the neighborhood lose track of him. Explain which psychological conditions best describe his actions.
- At the end, Eddie and Manny ride off on a railroad handcar. Create a model of a handcar and prepare an explanation of how one works.
The neighborhood's link to the past is not only tied to the views of one man, though. This story depicts a working-class neighborhood that is past its prime, decaying from neglect. During the war and the years immediately following the neighborhood was in its prime. During World War II, U.S. industrial cities such as Chicago ran at full tilt, churning out products for the war effort, and after the war, with bombed-out European cities trying to rebuild, the booming U.S. economy kept these cities productive. The streets now are deserted, with no thriving businesses mentioned beside taverns where people while away their lives. But the city features that were functioning around the time of the war—icehouses, streetcars, freight trains, and the regular rhythm of a fully functioning economy—haunt the memories of older neighborhood men.
Coming of Age
The three main characters in "Hot Ice" are in their teens, even though their socioeconomic situation has caused them to take on adult behaviors early. The events of the story cause each of them, in his own way, to cross over from childhood to adulthood.
At the beginning of the story, Pancho is poised between two sets of beliefs. He is a devout Catholic, but he also is a gang member and engages in life on the streets. When he is arrested and brought before a judge, he claims both identities: he says that he wants to be a holy card model (which Dybek foreshadows earlier in the story by saying that the nuns thought Pancho looked like a saint, such as St. Sebastian or Juan de la Cruz), but he also points out that he is a captain, which is a street gang title. On the streets, this dual personality has served Pancho well, but in jail he faces tougher conditions than he has ever known, and he snaps. When Manny visits, he finds that Pancho's buoyant spirit is gone and that he has lost his faith in his guardian angel.
Eddie approaches life as a bystander at the beginning of the story. He recalls stories, but not stories in which he participated. His favorite hobby is looking in storefront windows, not engaging with the people inside. At the end of the story, though, he becomes involved, helping Manny free the girl's body from the ice that has held it frozen for decades. Like her, he is shaking off inertia.
Manny describes himself as a loner, and throughout the story, when faced with adversity, he tries to reinforce that self-image by driving people away. When he thinks Pancho is in jail, he jokes with the people inside, but once Pancho has disappeared he turns angry. He disappears from Eddie's life for months. He mocks Big Antek for believing in the girl in ice. In finding the girl at the end, and in deciding to facilitate a rescue of her by letting her drift off into the lake (a dream of freedom he once had for himself), Manny is no longer a loner: he has matured into a man who understand responsibility.
Point of View
This story is told in third-person limited omniscient point of view, which means the author limits what he reveals to certain characters, all of which is told in third person. For the most part, the narrative focuses on Eddie Kapusta's thoughts, but at various times it drifts into the minds of other characters or into the perspective of the community as a whole. For instance, the opening paragraphs, relating the background information about the girl in ice, contain a broad perspective, explaining what a variety of people knew or thought of the story, but this information is then planted into Eddie's mind, with the narrative mentioning several times that the details being relayed are just the version that Eddie had heard or had imagined.
As the story progresses, the focus stays with Eddie, making this predominantly his story. When Manny acts erratically, for instance, the narrative does not explain what he is thinking, but it does give Eddie's thoughts about his behavior. When Eddie and Manny do not see each other for a few months, the narrative explains what Eddie has been up to, while Manny's actions are left unexplained.
One notable shift in the point of view occurs when the narrative dips into the mind of Big Antek, which occurs in two significant places. In the "Saints" section, the description of Antek's night in the freezer is begun as something that he told to Pancho: as the paragraph progresses, however, Dybek gives finer and finer details about that night, things that Antek would not have related in a story, about physical sensations and brand names. It is clear after a while that the story has temporarily shifted to Antek's point of view. The "Legends" section is mostly from Antek's point of view, giving his thoughts as he stands outside Buddy's bar and sees Eddie and Manny approach. When they are separated from him, having gone into the icehouse, the narrative reveals their actions as Big Antek imagines them. The very last section is then told from Manny's point of view, with his observations and thoughts.
Myths are usually handed down from generation to generation, with no direct evidence of their source. Often myths incorporate supernatural elements. In "Hot Ice," Dybek uses the emotional power of myths to charge modern life with a sense of religious awe.
He starts the story with the mysterious tale of the girl who was drowned and then frozen in ice by her grieving father. The tale includes several elements, such as the fact that the girl was young and innocent and her father carried her to the icehouse on a trolley car, that sound exaggerated. The fact that the basic story has grown to mythological importance can be seen in Big Antek's description of her great beauty and of her shining hair and in the way he and others attribute miracles to her.
The disappearance of Pancho represents a myth in the making. Readers can see the members of the community trying to fill in the gap in their knowledge about his fate by grasping at rumors. While some of the rumors, such as the ones that have him die in jail or run away to another country, might seem plausible, it is more likely that the ones that have him remain a part of the community as a ghost or phantom are the ones that will survive to be told to future generations.
Chicago is one of the large northern U.S. cities that fell from prominence in the 1970s, losing its place as an important manufacturing center as economic conditions changed. These cities, dotting the map from Illinois to New York, came to be referred to collectively as the Rust Belt.
Historically, the United States has been a world-class economic power, in part because of its huge crop lands in the South and its manufacturing base in the North. Cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Buffalo, which had good methods of transportation (rivers, lakes, or railroads), developed as centers for industry, with factories that pumped out the manufactured goods, from cars to paper to buttons, that powered U.S. economic growth. Particularly after World War II (1939–45), which had itself brought an end to the previous decade of economic depression, the industrial cities in the North produced the durable goods that made the United States one of the world's economic superpowers.
In the 1960s and 1970s, though, U.S. manufacturing lost its dominant position in the world market. Innovations in transportation and shipping, new trade agreements, and continuing struggles between organized labor and corporate owners led to conditions that made it less expensive for U.S. companies to import goods made overseas than to buy American-made products. Manufacturing became less and less important as a part of the economy, taken over by service jobs and jobs dealing with information processing in the new computer age. Factories closed and jobs left the cities. Areas such as the one described in "Hot Ice" that had once been bustling with factories and with well-paid factory workers became depressed and empty. Populations in the Rust Belt cities dropped throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties, but as of the early 2000s are on the rise again.
The Transformed Catholic Church
In this story, the main characters, particularly Pancho, retreat from the harshness of their blighted urban surroundings into the colorful mysteries of the Catholic Church. At the time, however, the Catholic Church was actively trying to be more open and less mysterious. In the early 1960s, under the auspices of Pope John XXIII, the church convened the Second Vatican Council (commonly referred to as Vatican II) to initiate changes that would make the Church more open to its followers and the people more familiar with their clergy and liturgy. Over the course of four annual meetings, from 1962 to 1965, the council discussed such matters as the church's relationship to other faiths, the role of the clergy in the lives of their followers, and the reform of the liturgy used during Mass. The form of the council was open debate, so that conservative and progressive movements within the church were able to express their concerns equally.
In the end, Vatican II led to the most significant changes in the Church since the Reformation. Mass was changed from the traditional Latin to the language of parishioners. Music was given a more prominent role. Lay people—those not fully ordained by the Church—became participants in the Mass. Priests and bishops became more accessible to the people they serve, instead of being insulated in the church bureaucracy.
Traditionalists regretted the changes that had made the Catholic Church more accessible, feeling that the religious experience should be based in mystery not familiarity. By the time this story was published, the tide had turned against the changes made by Vatican II. Pope John Paul II, who began his reign in 1978, was one of history's most popular popes, traveling widely to encourage participation in the Church by those who had traditionally been left out, but he was also strongly conservative, opposing the progressives who wished to bring changes to the church, such as acceptance of homosexuals or ordination of women.
After "Hot Ice" was published in Antaeus in 1994, it was chosen for the prestigious O. Henry Award for short fiction. It is one of four Dybek stories given this award; this story and two of the other award winners are included in the 1990 collection The Coast of Chicago.
The 1990 Antioch Review refers to The Coast of Chicago, Dybek's second collection, as "paradoxically vivid and realistic," calling his portrait of growing up in Chicago "richly remembered." Don Lee, writing in Ploughshares, focuses on Dybek's propensity for shifting from what he calls "a gritty realism befitting Chicago's South Side to metafictional techniques which transform images into reverie, the tangible into the mythic." He finds that, given the diversity of the subjects Dybek writes about, such shifts are entirely pertinent, noting, "Nothing could be more appropriate."
Compare & Contrast
- 1984: Many veterans who returned in the 1960s and 1970s from Vietnam continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The assumption is that Vietnam vets are like Big Antek, struggling with the fracture that military service has made of their lives.
Today: Because of experiences with returning Vietnam veterans, the U.S. government increases its efforts to care for veterans' mental health, although such programs are not always properly funded.
- 1984: High school students dropping out of school can find well-paying, hard labor jobs.
Today: Many manual labor jobs go overseas. High school education is necessary for even basic employment in the post-computer age economy.
- 1984: Stories about ice houses and trolley cars contain enough familiar elements to be romanticized by those telling neighborhood legends.
Today: Legends still pop up about modern ideas such as cell phones and chat rooms. Some websites specifically report on urban legends.
- 1984: The traditional Polish population of Chicago's Little Village/Pilsen neighborhood, where this story takes place, is becoming mixed with Mexican immigrants.
Today: Little Village/Pilsen boasts the largest Mexican community in the Midwest and is second only to East Los Angeles in the country.
- 1984: A judge might offer a young man who has been arrested the option of joining the military instead of going to jail.
Today: Many communities adapt mandatory sentencing guidelines that strip judges of the power to offer such an option.
- 1984: Fishing off-shore near Chicago for rainbow smelt in Lake Michigan is popular, mostly among people from working-class families, as it has been for generations.
Today: Most of the smelt in the lake are gone, their population having been decimated in the late 1980s by a loss of mysis shrimp, their primary food source.
In Michiko Kakutani's review of The Coast of Chicago for New York Times Book Review, she compares the book to Sherwood Anderson's classic short story collection Winesburg, Ohio (1919). While Kakutani finds that the Dybek's book lacks Anderson's cumulative effect, mostly due to the lack of a common character carrying over from story to story, she thinks that the individual stories in The Coast of Chicago, including "Hot Ice," "possess an emotional forcefulness: they introduce us to characters who want to take up permanent residence in our minds, and in doing so, they persuasively conjure up a fictional world that is both ordinary and amazing."
In March of 2004, the mayor of Chicago announced that The Coast of Chicago had been chosen as that year's entry in the city's "One Book, One Chicago" series. This honor includes having the book read at high schools and colleges throughout the city in hopes of creating a massive book club spreading across one of the country's largest metropolitan centers. In addition, the city arranged public reading from the book by actors from the world-renown Steppenwolf Theatre Company; discussion groups; and tours of the neighborhoods discussed in the stories.
Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and literature. In this essay, Kelly explains how the story does not divert from conventional reality as much as it first appears to do so.
Stuart Dybek's story "Hot Ice" ends with the memorable scene of two neighborhood friends, who have been estranged, united in a combined effort: they ride off on, of all things, a railroad handcar, a device hearkening back to the Civil War period, transporting a corpse frozen in a block of ice. The corpse signifies a local legend, in which a young woman was rumored to have been killed some thirty years earlier and carried to the local ice house by the deceased girl's grieving father. In the ensuing years the girl's fame has grown: she has been nominated for sainthood by the parish nun and Big Antek, the local drunk whom everyone knows, swears that her body, in its ice block, was in a freezer he managed to lock himself in over a weekend and that her presence kept him from freezing. Dybek renders Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, as he does in other stories, in harsh, unforgiving scenes of urban decay. In this story the residents want to believe that this miraculous corpse is among them, protecting them with its magical powers, but wanting and getting are in no way connected in the cold reality of "Hot Ice."
The late appearance of the actual girl in ice and the way that Manny Santora and Eddie Kapusta deal with finding such a mythic figure appear to come from a reality that is different than the one set up in the preceding pages. They are certainly welcome developments, providing relief from the grueling existence and empty dreams that fill up this long story: readers cannot help but feel, maybe for the first time, that things will turn out well for these characters. Nonetheless, these events represent a different reality than the one that has been established. At least, they seem to. However, the fact that the corpse in an ice block exists and that two characters ride off on a handcar to release it into the lake are clearly prepared for throughout the story.
This is a story about urban reality, but within that reality, this is a story about myths. It establishes two categories of myths, religious and secular, and examines the circumstances in life that lead people to repeat them, build on them, and eventually start creating new myths of their own. The story of the frozen girl is just one of numerous myths told in the Pilsen neighborhood, creating an environment of heightened expectation. Dybek contrasts the oppressiveness of city life, consisting of crumbling buildings, police and jailers, drugs and alcohol, and unemployment, with the characters' own beliefs in powers from beyond their experiences, like those of their myths, can save them.
The setting Dybek uses for "Hot Ice" is based on a real place: the Pilsen neighborhood exists as of 2005 with the streets, intersections, and landmarks mentioned in the story, including the Douglas Park lagoon where the girl was rumored to have drowned and the Cook County Jail where Manny and Eddie meet at night, and the shoreline of Lake Michigan. The sounds, smells, and sights of this neighborhood are meticulously rendered. The story is not limited to recording empirical reality, however. It stretches current reality backwards, rendering for readers a neighborhood that contains vestiges or memories of its own past. Streetcars, ragmen, knife sharpening carts, icemen, taverns with Bing Crosby on the jukebox, and butcher shops that would hire the crazy old neighborhood alcoholic who has already cut off several fingers at other butcher shops, all these elements convey the neighborhood as it once was.
Just like the two levels of everyday life—the old, which is a dim and quickly fading memory, and the new, which does not have anything appealing to offer the story's young men—there are also two levels of myths. The old ones are the Catholic myths, the stories of martyrs and saints that have inspired the faithful for generations. These are the ones that are taught to the neighborhood children, with unpredictable results. In this story, Pancho is fanatically devoted, Eddie is guardedly reverent, and Manny is flat-out skeptical (at least until he follows in his brother's footsteps by attending Good Friday services, but even then his is a secular, not sacred, devotion). Regardless of one's level of commitment, one cannot live in the neighborhood Dybek describes without being aware of its Catholic tradition.
What Do I Read Next?
- Tony Fitzpatrick, a Chicago poet and artist, covers roughly the same territory that Dybek does in his poetry collection Bum Town (2001).
- Many critics point out that Dybek's writing comes out of a Chicago tradition of gritty realism that started with James T. Farrell, the author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy in the early 1900s. The three Lonigan books—Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgment Day—have been collected in one edition as James T. Farrell: Studs Lonigan (2004).
- The lyricism of Dybek's fiction becomes solidified in his poetry. His Streets in Their Own Ink (2004) are drawn from his own life, taking a closer look at his upbringing and the Chicago that he once knew.
- For thumbnail sketches of stories that have circulated in Chicago neighborhoods for years, readers may enjoy Chicago Sketches: Urban Tales, Stories, and Legends from Chicago History, published in 1996 by June Skinner Sawyers. Her explanations of the local lore are quick summaries, but they capture the sketchy, mischievous nature of such stories.
The newest level of myth is represented here by the stories surrounding Pancho Santora and his disappearance. This mythology is so new that readers can see it developing throughout the course of the story. Pancho's experience is established from the beginning of the story as the perfect fertile ground from which a myth can grow. He has spent his life surrounding himself with mystery, associating himself with not only the Catholic traditions but with ghosts and astrology as well, which shows his religious devotion to be part of his general inclination toward the supernatural. But Pancho is more than just a head-in-the-clouds idealist: he is a man of the people, a gang member, a product of his tough urban environment, and he ends up in one of the least idealistic environments imaginable, the county jail.
In jail, Pancho becomes the inspiration for a new urban myth, one that springs from within the neighborhood and stars a local boy: the story of the man who disappeared from custody. Like all myths, this one has something familiar in it. Jail break stories often entail the basic premise of a person managing to get lost within a system that exists manifestly to keep tabs on people. Moreover, as is common with myths, Pancho's story exists in various versions. Some of the theories about his fate (such as that he might have killed himself or had his throat slashed or even that he was allowed to take the judge's offer retroactively and choose military service over jail) seem plausible. Others (such as people's reports that he walked out unnoticed, that he fled to Mexico, or is now haunting the El) may seem less likely, but that imaginative element makes them suitable for gossip. "Rumors were becoming legends," Dybek tells his readers, "and no one knew how to mourn a person who had just disappeared." The element of the unknown and the discomfort about unknowing are the main ingredients needed for an instant urban legend.
The story of the girl in ice is the bridge between the sacred myths of the church and the newly-forming secular one about Pancho. As the ancient nun, Sister Joachim, calls attention to in the story, the legend of the girl is certainly similar to church-sanctioned stories about martyrs: notable similarities are that the girl who dies defending her virginity is enshrined immediately by her father and is credited with miracles and cures. The links to the Pilsen neighborhood of a generation or two back, just real enough and yet fanciful enough, are established with the details about the streetcar and the icehouse. In telling this tale, carrying it forward, Eddie and Manny and the young men of the day open their imaginations to miraculous occurrences in their own times.
This story would be complete if it left things at this point, showing how Christian tradition affects myths developed two generations back, which spawn new myths. But at the end Dybek changes this story from one about imagination to one about reality, with the girl in ice as more than just a legend: she actually shows up. Before her appearance, all of the fantastic elements of the story are in the minds of the neighborhood people, stewing under the oppression of unyielding reality, aching for a miracle. Having her actually appear in the story changes the tone, giving the story in a more playful and imaginative guise.
At least, it would, if she actually did appear. The scene in which the girl in ice is found is itself shrouded in mystery, in unreality. For one thing, Dybek tells the events through the point of view of Big Antek. Antek is the one person in the story who claims to have actually seen the girl in ice, but the circumstances in which he claims to have seen her are dubious. The widely accepted narrative has her body taken to the icehouse immediately after she drowns, and it is in the icehouse that she is found three decades later: Antek's report that he encountered her in a butcher's freezer may be a figment of his liquor-soaked mind, a convenient fiction for someone desperate to believe. Antek's reliability as a witness is questionable at best, and the happenings in the ice house at the end are told from his perspective. Dybek paints the whole scene of the girl's eventual discovery with lurid, surreal descriptions, from the break-in through the roof to the screwy sense of order that takes over any abandoned building (in this one, it is the odd sight of ice machines stacked floor-to-ceiling) to the slanted, melting ice blocks to the unnatural light of the road flare that illumines Manny and Eddie's way.
Perhaps the most obscure detail, though, is the one that immediately precedes the discovery of the girl. Eddie and Manny, straining to see into the blocks of ice, find their vision confounded by the thousands of cracks forming inside of the massive blocks: "They could only see shadows and had to guess at the forms: fish, birds, shanks of meat, a dog, a cat, a chair, what appeared to be a bicycle."
Was the girl from the lagoon actually frozen in the icehouse? The idea seems unlikely from the start, as the three protagonists point out in arguing its probability in the opening scene. It seems more likely at the end, when Manny and Eddie think they have found her and decide to free her; the narrative relates her discovery as a matter of fact, not delusion. But their having found her is only as likely as their actually having seen a dog or a cat or a bicycle frozen in a block of ice.
In the end, they probably do ride off toward the lake with a block of ice: though the act of commandeering a railroad handcar and taking off down the tracks with it is unlikely, it is just the sort of remnant from a bygone era that the neighborhood Dybek describes here could support. They probably do not, however, actually find the girl in ice, but only fantasize that they do. There is plenty of evidence throughout the story for believing that readers are not meant to believe that the block of ice actually contains human remains. Manny and Eddie have been up all night, drinking and taking drugs; the ice factory is dim, abandoned, and shadowy, with strange lights suggesting bizarre phantasms; and they have heard legends about the girl's existence all their lives.
The story works just as well without having to believe that Dybek is claiming an actual miracle. Taking the characters at their word, believing what they believe, would make the world of the work a magical place where supernatural things can occur. Being skeptical, though, makes it even more magical: Dybek's neighborhood is a place where two people can look into the lurid obscurity of a block of ice and hallucinate the same thing, bringing the myth to life with their imaginations.
Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on "Hot Ice," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following interview conducted in October 2003, Dybek discusses with Claire Kirch his youth in the ethnically mixed South Side of Chicago, and his discovery of and approach to writing.
You can take the man out of Chicago, but you can't take Chicago out of the man—especially if you are talking about Western Michigan University English professor Stuart Dybek. Though Dybek has lived in Kalamazoo for almost 30 years, his gritty yet magical short stories are set almost exclusively in the Southwest Side of Chicago (overlapping neighborhoods known as Pilsen and Little Village, and later called El Barrio). Dybek's elegiac stories, with their strong sense of place in memory and interlinked characters, have been compared to Joyce's Dubliners and Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. A regular contributor to literary, magazines and anthologies, he's regarded with an almost cultlike reverence by his fans for his stories and poems.
Ten years after the publication of his last collection, readers are going to be surfeited with Dybek's prose and poetry, this fall and next year. Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, originally published in 1980 by Viking and reissued in 1990 by Ecco was released one more time by the University of Chicago Press last month. Coast of Chicago, first published in 1990 by Knopf, will be reissued this month by Picador. And a new collection of short stories, I Sailed with Magellan, will be published by FSG this month. Dybek's first collection of poems, Brass Knuckles, originally published in 1979 by the University of Pittsburgh Press, will be reissued by Carnegie Mellon Press in the spring. And in a not-too-common circumstance of one press publishing both an author's prose and poetry, FSG will simultaneously publish Dybek's second collection of poems, Streets in Their Own Ink.
PW and Dybek arranged to meet one rainy Friday afternoon in October at Shaman Drum Books, in the heart of Ann Arbor. It must have been football weekend: the streets were clogged with students and townies. Clutching a dogeared galley of I Sailed with Magellan, PW walked through Shaman Drum inquiring of every, middle-aged man in the store if he was Stuart Dybek. He was nowhere to be found—until PW spied a slightly built male figure outside, leaning casually against the front of the store, wearing a battered green suede jacket. He looked exactly like one of the street-savvy, toughguy, weather-beaten characters in a Dybek short story. And it was Dybek.
Like his I Sailed with Magellan alter ego, Polish-American teen Perry Katzek, Dybek grew up in a close-knit, working class ethnic neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and early '60s. Dybek's parents were immigrants. While the neighborhood now is populated mostly by Mexican-Americans, during Dybek's youth it was a neighborhood in transition. It had long been populated by Poles and Czechs, with Latinos newly added to the ethnic mix—disparate groups whose cultural differences were bridged by the Roman Catholic Church. "The South Side of Chicago has always been a quintessential neighborhood, the target of migrations. In writing about this little ethnic enclave, I am writing about America," he pronounces, as we sit in the kind of trendy, pseudohippie cafe that one finds only in American college towns like Ann Arbor, Ithaca or Chapel Hill.
Dybek's father, Stanley, was a foreman a the International Harvester plant, which manufactured thinks and farm implements. His mother, Adeline, worked as a truck dispatcher. Dybek recalls his youth as a "benevolent time." He describes the neighborhood as one with a "working-class ambiance, rather than a middle-class sensibility." He explains, "Because of the church, there was a strong sense of community. We all shared the same religion, though there otherwise was not a lot of assimilation in this so-called melting pot. There were also a lot of kids—so there was this huge tribal sense that transcended ethnic lines. We had huge amounts of unsupervised time. Our parents did not schedule after-school activities for us—they had other things to do. We created a world of our own, side by side with the adult world. They ignored us, and we ignored them. It was a 'might makes right' world that we created, straight out of Lord of the Flies. There was enormous joy and vitality, though mixed with fear, having so much freedom. This exhilaration provided a great counterbalance to the economic stresses and tensions that were such a part of our lives."
Dybek can pinpoint the exact moment when he realized the importance of language and imagination in his universe. "I remember the year, the day, the very moment that my life as a writer began," he declares with relish about an experience in the fourth grade. "One morning my mother was sick with the flu. My father had woken me up that morning and left a bowl of this awful stuff—they called it Ralston; on the table for me. I had not done my homework yet and had to write a one-page essay on Africa 'the Dark Continent' for school. So I pushed the Ralston away, and decided to do my homework instead. I tried to describe the trees in Africa. But 1 was a city kid—the highest things I'd ever seen in my life were the skyscrapers in Chicago. I wrote the phrase 'the tree-scraped skies.' It was as if a bolt shot through me. Literally, it was a moment of epiphany. I had discovered metaphor. It was the first time I felt this enormous connection to language. For me, writing no longer was just something that had to do with school."
Dybek obviously feels strongly about honing his writing to perfection as he leans forward, warming to the subject. "I try to make my prose tactile and sensuous. My writing contains a lot of images, a lot of smells. I try to make the rhythm of the language musical in my stories." Dybek compares his efforts to the poems of Eugenic Montale: "Montale describes a lemon grove in such a way … by god, you read that poem, you are there, you are there in that lemon grove in Italy. I want the reader to be there. I want the reader to feel sensually scenes I create oil the page. I want life on the page. I want nay writing to be like music, tactile and emotive. I want the reader to feel this stuff."
"Write what you know and the rest will follow" might be a time-worn cliche, but in Dybek's case, it's the truth. Dybek recalls not using his childhood memories as a springboard or Chicago as a backdrop in his early work. Instead, he tried to create conventional short stories with generic American characters. "I wanted to imitate my models—like F. Scott Fitzgerald," he admits. "My early stories did not have a particular place. They were more about …" Dybek pauses, embarrassed at the thought of his early efforts. "I can't remember. None were published."
Searching for his narrative voice, Dybek looked to his literary forebears for inspiration. "Funny thing about Chicago writers is how many come from the South Side," he declares. "James Farrell, Theodore Dreiser, Saul Bellow, Gwendolyn Brooks…. The South Side of Chicago is a microcosm of America. All these big themes are available to you—they rise out naturally front the material. Themes like poverty, faith, prejudice, immigration, assimilation, race, class…. Instead of imposing my own biases or some kind of aesthetic agenda, I want them to come naturally out of the material—like Eudora Welty writing about the South or Joyce about Dublin."
Although Dybek recognizes that his work is greatly, influenced by the Chicago style of realistic writing, his work goes be yond into a realm all his own that can only be called "Chicago magical realism." Certainly, Dybek's Chicago is a real place of garbage-strewn alleys, street vendors hawking their wares and rundown apartment buildings rocked by the rumblings of a passing El train. But there's also magic and joy in Dybek's Chicago, perhaps springing from that heady, combination of ethnic folkways and Roman Catholic rituals that colored Iris childhood and now infuses his tales. Statues of saints may wink at school-children, tulips bloom on an inner-city street, dead girls frozen in ice perform miracles and spontaneous parades of people wind through the streets. Dybek's tales are a seamless mixture of the real and the fantastic, the tangible and the mythic, the sacred and the profane.
Though his working-class characters live hardscrabble lives in the inner city, they never lose hope. They constantly look for and find beauty around them—even though the orchids two characters pick turn out to be irises, the dawn turns out to be the lights of Gary, Ind., and the ship's lights on Lake Michigan are those of a pumping station. While discussing the characters inhabiting his stories, Dybek says, "I really wanted there to be—even in the midst of the grittier side of life—humor, vitality, a full palate of human emotion. I don't think you can demonstrate humor or vitality except by testing it. Imagination allows people to survive. It's not just escape: imagination allows you to reject definitions imposed on you by redefining the world through the power of the imagination."
Dybek's entire life might be said to imitate his art. The story of how Dybek got his first collection of short stories, Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, published by a major New York publishing house could be a story straight out of Stuart Dybek's metafictional world. It's a modern fairy tale—complete with fairy godmother editors and magical manuscripts—in a realistic and hard-boiled New York publishing house setting. "Back in those days, here were such things as junior editors and slush piles that these assistants actually combed through. My manuscript literally came over the transom at Viking. The story is that an editor's assistant at Viking was laughing hysterically while reading one of my short stories. The editor came out of her office and wanted to know what was going on. She then read the manuscript and laughed hysterically. My phone rang, and a voice said, 'Hey, we like your manuscript.'" Dybek pauses for emphasis: "I had no agent or anything. I was shocked, and remember thinking, 'How could this happen to me?'"
But like the Chicago of his youth that may or may not have ever existed, Dybek mourns the demise of publishing as it used to be. "I bridged that change in the publishing world. I came in when publishing was the way it was. Books were art, not 'product.' I've been around, and have seen the enormous changes in publishing that have occurred in the last two decades. What happened to me at Viking 25 years ago could never happen today. Now you send your manuscript to an agent, you don't just send it unsolicited to a publisher."
Dybek's recollections of his entree into book publishing continue with yet more larger-than-life characters added into the mix. Dybek describes his longtime editor, Elisabeth Sifton, in reverential tones. "She was not that first editor at Viking who discovered me, but she became my editor at Viking. She is a kind of iconic figure in publishing, a real old-style editor. We started out at Viking. I followed her to Knopf, and then followed her to Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She's a delight to work with, and it's a privilege to work with her. Almost any book she does I like. We have similar tastes. She is a great, great editor."
Asking about FSG publishing his newest collection of stories this fall as well as his new collection of poems, PW can see where Dybek's fantastic stories come from. Dybek's entire life and career seem to be based on cosmic coincidences. "Montale is one of my favorite poets. His primary translator in the United States is none other than Jonathan Galassi, the publisher at FSG, who is absolutely wonderful in his own right. This is absolutely amazing to me—to work with the same people who work with Montale." There is wonder in Dybek's voice as he says, "I am so lucky." Perhaps. Or maybe Stuart Dybek is just one hell of a raconteur, who can't help seeing the magic in the everyday world around him.
Source: Claire Kirch, "Windy City Oracle: Stuart Dybek," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 250, No. 44, November 3, 2003, pp. 49-50.
Thomas S. Gladsky
In the following essay, Gladsky explores Dybek's rendering of ethnicity and cultural and spiritual heritage in his stories.
The new world culture and old country heritage of approximately fifteen million Americans of Polish descent are among multicultural America's best kept secrets. Historically a quiet minority, they have been eager to acculturate, assimilate, and melt into the mainstream.
One of the consequences of this has been a failure to acquaint other Americans with Polish culture—its history and literature—or to establish a recognized ethnic literary tradition. This is not to say that there is not a Polish presence in American letters. From the 1830s and the arrival of the first significant body of Polish emigres, primarily officers exiled after the 1831 uprising against the tzar, American writers have created Polish literary selves in plays, fiction, poems, and in prose works numbering perhaps as many as two hundred. Many of these contain abbreviated characterizations, predictably simplistic portraits, or, in some cases, merely composite Slavic cultural representations. At the same time, a few writers of classic ethnic and immigrant fiction, such as Karl Harriman (The Homebuilders 1903), Edith Miniter (Our Natupski Neighbors 1916), and Joseph Vogel (Man's Courage 1938), have sensitively explored the culture of Americans of Polish descent. Despite their efforts, what has emerged, as Thomas Napierkowski, Caroline Golab, and others have argued, is a set of stereotypes that have in certain ways attempted to transform a culture into a caricature.
Beginning in the 1930s, descent writers themselves began to examine the Polish self in a multiplicity of ways when Monica Krawczyk, Victoria Janda, and Helen Bristol turned to the immigrant generation as the subject of their poetry and fiction. Two decades later Richard Bankowsky produced a remarkable tetralogy about the arrival and dispersal of a turn of the century immigrant family. Bankowsky's A Glass Rose is perhaps the best novel about Slavic immigration in all of American literature. Wanda Kubiak (Polonaise Nevermore) and Matt Babinski (By Raz 1937) have described Poles in Wisconsin and Connecticut. In a series of novels in the 1970s, Darryl Poniscan followed the fortunes of the Buddusky clan in eastern Pennsylvania and elsewhere. In fiction for children, Anne Pellowski lovingly describes growing up ethnic in the Latsch Valley of Wisconsin. In numerous poems, The Warsaw Sparks, and his soon to be published memoir, Szostak, Gary Gildner explores both old and new world selves in sensitive ways. Most recently, Anthony Bukoski looks back to a rapidly vanishing Duluth community in Children of Strangers. In short, when one also considers the "Solidarity generation" of Czeslaw Milosz, Eva Hoffman, Stanislaus Baranczak, Janusz Glowacki, W. S. Kuniczak, and others, the Polish experience in American literature becomes demonstrable if not exceptional.
Even so, contemporary writers of Polish descent face complex problems, some of which are, of course, shared to some degree by all those who write about ethnicity. An ever-narrowing definition of multiculturalism that virtually excludes Eastern Europeans is one. Competing waves of Polish immigrants, dividing the ethnic community into descendants of the largely peasant immigration of 1880–1914, a post-war influx of "displaced persons," and a newer, more highly educated, urban Solidarity generation, is another. Added to these are America's general unfamiliarity with Polish culture, originating during the period of great immigration when nativists tended to lump all Slavic peoples together and to promote caricatures and stereotypes of Poles in particular.
Stuart Dybek is a case in point. The author of numerous poems and short stories, including a collection of verse (Brass Knuckles 1976) and two collections of fiction (Childhood and Other Neighborhoods 1986 and The Coast of Chicago 1990), Dybek is among the first writers of Polish descent (who write about the ethnic self) to receive national recognition. Reviewers have praised him as a regional writer (Chicago) and as a social critic who sides with those on the margin. They have compared him with Bellow and Dreiser and pointed to his city landscapes and spare, terse dialogue while, unfortunately, ignoring the ethnic dimension in his work. To be sure, Dybek does indeed write about the human condition. He gives us primarily initiation stories of urban adolescent males stretching into adulthood, expressing their sexuality, bravado and intellectual independence and realigning their social identity. Chicago with its particularized ethnic neighborhoods is a marked presence in their lives.
For Dybek, who grew up in southside Chicago, ethnicity is itself a natural and integral part of the human condition. The population in his neighborhood was mainly Eastern European and Hispanic. As he describes it: "The Eastern Europeans—Poles and Czechs—were migrating out; the Hispanics were migrating in. Each group had its own bars; they shared the same churches" ("You Can't Step Into the Same Street Twice"). Ethnicity, moreover, is also a condition of the contemporary literary experience. If not itself the central thrust of Dybek's work, it is one of those doorways, as he prefers to describe it, that leads to "some other dimension of experience and perception that forever changes the way one sees life." It is no surprise therefore that ethnicity is everywhere in his works. In "The River," a Ukrainian kid fiddles a nocturne. The girl in "Laughter" is Greek. The upstairs neighbors in "Chopin in Winter" speak Czech. The eccentric teacher in "Farewell" comes from Odessa. Hispanics appear in a number of stories; but Polish ethnicity is the tie that binds Dybek's protagonists together and supplies the cultural temperament in his fiction. Young men are named Swantek, Marzek, Vukovich, Kozak, and Gowumpe. Grandmothers called Busha worship in churches named St. Stanislaus. Relatives refer to soup as zupa; the neighbors listen to the Frankie Yankovitch Polka Hour; passersby speak Polish. Here and there we hear about mazurkas, Paderewski, Our Lady of Czestochowa, babushkas, and DPs, a recurring reference to non-native born Americans of Polish descent.
But what kind of ethnicity is Dybek portraying and how does he, a third generation American at some distance from his cultural roots, choose to represent his own cultural heritage? What, in effect, is Polish about these stories and what is the relationship between old and new expressions of ethnicity inside and outside Polonia? To some, Dybek's fiction may appear to be anachronistic, in that his frame of reference excludes the post-war and more recent Solidarity immigration that has transformed the Polish community in the United States, especially in Chicago, the setting for much of his work. Dybek, it could be argued, understands ethnicity almost exclusively from the point of view of the peasant generation and its descendants. In truth, the period of immigration and old world ties has long ago ended for his ethnic Poles. Consequently, he does not focus on assimilation and acculturation; nor are his characters busily collecting and preserving bits and pieces of their old world heritage. To the contrary, his protagonists are young, streetsmart, third generation Americans who know little, if anything, about Poland's past or present or the cultural nuances of the immigrant generation from which they are descended.
If anything, Dybek shows this generation resisting its ethnic impulses even as it rushes toward them. His young protagonists are updated modernists who, like Stephen Daedalus or Alfred Prufrock, wander city streets content with their own alienation and superior to the urban blight and social chaos that surround them. They are loners, eccentrics, budding intellectuals. They have no conscious sense of themselves as Polish-American or as ethnic in the usual sense of descending from a common history, religion, geography, and set of traditions. They are consumed instead with adolescence, environment, friends—with life in deteriorating and changing southside Chicago. They prefer Kerouac, the White Sox, Edward Hopper and rock music. Dybek's young Chicagoans thrive on melancholy, feast on loneliness, inhabit the "hourless times of night." They are refugees from Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," which Dybek features prominently in his work. At the same time, they are acutely aware that they ache for something they cannot name "but knew was missing," as the narrator of "The River" phrases it; and that "things are gone they couldn't remember, but missed; and things were gone they weren't sure ever were there." Primarily, their narratives are remembrances of youthful things past.
For them, ethnicity and memory are interwoven naturally and succinctly. Consequently ethnicity in these stories is everywhere and yet almost beyond reach. Polish culture, for example, often enters through the back door. Dybek never identifies his characters as Poles, nor do they refer to themselves as Polish or as Polish-American. Polishness is rather cumulative, dependent partly on recurring signifiers and partly on the interconnectedness of the stories themselves. In "typical" fashion, he draws attention to the presence of cultural differences in the first few lines and then proceeds to develop a generic ethnic cultural landscape which seems to have few particular Polish markers. This approach is evident even in the first story in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods. The title, "The Palatski Man," itself calls attention to otherness, although only midway in the story does Dybek explain that palatski, apparently a regional American corruption of plocki, the Polish word for potato pancake, was a food once sold by vendors in southside Chicago. In the first page the reader also encounters the Slavic-sounding name Leon Sisca and the Catholic mysteries of Palm Sunday. The children attend St. Roman's grammar school, have friends named Zmiga and another named Raymond Cruz, "part Mexican" and perhaps part Polish. In addition, the children define their surroundings in terms of their parish church, which distinguishes their neighborhood from the adjoining one where "more Mexicans lived." Apart from the fact that the palatski man stammers in "foreign English," no other overt references to ethnicity in general or to Polishness in particular occur.
This approach is repeated elsewhere. In "The Wake," Dybek looks at one evening in the life of Jill, a southside Chicago teenager whose surname and particular cultural heritage remain anonymous. Dybek, however, establishes Till's parameters, physical and psychological, within an ethnic landscape. On her way to the wake, she hears the bells of St. Kasimir's church and walks along the street that serves as a boundary between her neighborhood and St. Anne's, "an old Slavic neighborhood that had become Spanish." She heads toward Zeijek's Funeral home, "a three-story building domed with its fake Russian onion." Reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Jill eventually drives off with an intrusive Hispanic whose ethnicity poses no threat to her. We learn that the culture of Jill's neighborhood is Slavic-Hispanic. She drives by the hot tamale man with his striped umbrella; she hears radios turned to Latin stations; and she refers to the young man's car as "Pancho." There is no dominant ethnic "theme" in "The Wake," no social or generational problems, no hint of cultural oppression or collision. Ethnicity is muted, understood, and natural—an integral part of the contemporary urban experience and cultural context—but not exclusively tied to national boundaries, even though one suspects that Jill might be of Polish descent.
In other stories in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago, and elsewhere, Dybek constructs a more specifically Polish ethnic identity for his characters, their neighborhood, and their frame of mind. In "The Cat Woman" and "Blood Soup," the two stories that immediately succeed "The Palatski Man," Dybek repeats the pattern of the opening story, relying primarily on names, words, and surface features to establish an ethnic landscape. At the outset, the reader learns that buzka and busha are what some people call their grandmothers. The reader also meets characters with Slavic-sounding names such as Swantek and Stefush (a Polish diminutive for Stephen). The cat woman, Swantek's grandmother, fingers her rosary and tunes her radio to the polka station. She also shares cabbage soup with her neighbor, Mrs. Panova. In stories like "The Cat Woman," the ethnic markers suggest a composite Slavic cultural landscape although discerning readers might interpret the markers as the outlines of Polish-American culture.
A distinctly Polish frame of reference becomes evident only in "Blood Soup," the third story in Childhood, where, in addition to Busha "clutching the crucifix" and references to such old world Catholic practices as the kissing of holy pictures, Dybek includes more compelling evidence of Polish ethnicity. On occasion, he uses Polish words (usiadz, dziekuje, dupa, czarina, rozumiesz) without translation. His young hero remembers the traditional Polish custom of blessing the Easter breakfast food: colored eggs, ham, bread, kraut, horseradish, and kielbasa. More importantly, in this story Dybek moves beyond ceremonies and the surface features of ethnicity when he tries to capture something of the old world temperament that differentiates Eastern Europeans from Americans and first generation ethnics from their descendants. At one point, Stefush recognizes that his grandmother is different in more substantive ways that merely her taste for czarnina, a peasant soup made from duck's blood. He senses in her "a kind of love he thought must have come from the old country—instinctive, unquestioning like her strength, something foreign that he couldn't find in himself, that hadn't even been transmitted to his mother."
Ethnicity, particularly the culture of Americans of Polish descent, is cumulative in Dybek's writing. Often one story clarifies and extends an ethnic dimension introduced in another. For example, in order to understand fully what Dybek means in "Blood Soup" by "a kind of love" that "must have come from the old country," we must turn to "A Minor Mood," published some seven years later. This is a familiar tale of immigrants and their descendants. Joey, a young third generation American, remembers attacks of bronchitis and his granny swooping down upon him, bathing his neck with a glob of Vicks and wrapping it in her babushka, applying camphor to his chest, filling the rooms with steam, mixing honey, lemon, Jim Beam, and boiling water for him to drink (and for herself too). These were mornings, he concludes, "to be tucked away at the heart of life, so that later, whenever one needed to draw upon the recollection of joy in order to get through troubled times it would be there." All of "A Minor Mood," in effect, develops and expands the ethnic temperament alluded to in "Blood Soup," although a few ethnic signifiers can be noticed.
Only once does Dybek turn to what might be called a paradigmatic ethnic tale in order to define the contemporary Polish-American self. In "Chopin in Winter," a story about the conflicting claims of descent and consent, the aging Dzia Dzia tells his own story to his grandson—his trek from Krakow to Gdansk to avoid being drafted into the tzarist army, his immigration to the coal mines of Pennsylvania and the barges of the Great Lakes. At one point, Dzia Dzia's story melts into that of another Polish immigrant and national icon, Frederick Chopin. "Chopin, he'd whisper hoarsely to Michael, pointing to the ceiling with the reverence of nuns pointing to heaven." More than telling his story, the old man provides a cultural frame for the third generation, creating an image of what it means to be ethnic.
Dybek does not mean to stop here, however, with romantic and sentimental notions of heritage; he is more interested in cultural fusion, in that uniquely American acculturating process described by Werner Sollors in Beyond Ethnicity as the tension between "our hereditary qualities" and our position as "architects of our fate." Grandfather, for instance, mentions in "Chopin in Winter" that Paderewski dearly loved Chopin; but Michael does not know Paderewski, a sign of his distance from his cultural heritage. Instinctively, Grandfather connects their American and Polish heritages in a comic but revealing and shrewd fashion, by asking, "Do you know who's George Washington, who's Joe Dimaggio, who's Walt Disney?… Paderewski was like them, except he played Chopin…. See, deep down inside, Lefty, you know more than you think." Even in this, one of Dybek's most "Polish" stories, cultural transmission gives way to a new cultural pattern of consent and descent. For Americans of Polish descent, ethnicity means knowing about Joe Dimaggio and Paderewski, Washington and Chopin, Disneyland and Krakow.
Ethnicity also means Catholicism; in fact, Catholicism in the form of childhood experiences with the church, the parochial school, or the religious practices and attitudes of the immigrant generation permeates these stories and poems and often is the singular definer of Polish culture. Even here Dybek concentrates not on Polish but on ethnic expressions of and responses to Catholicism. In a recently published chapbook, The Story of Mist, Dybek begins by wondering what it is "about the belly button that connected it to the Old Country?" To explain, he immediately turns to religious metaphors, noting that "outside, night billowed like the habits of nuns through vigil lights of snow," while Busha's "rosary-pinched fingers" promised to lead inward. But it is the tolling of the bells from the steeple of St. Kasimir's that serves as the umbilical cord between old and new world culture. When he hears them, he knows that "Krakow is only blocks away, just past Goldblatt's darkened sign."
The parish church is thus the center of vision in a significant number of stories. In "The Wake," Jill uses the church steeple to locate her whereabouts in the neighborhood. Ladies murmur the rosary in front of the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa in "Neighborhood Drunk." In a fit of madness Budhardin destroys the inside of the parish church in "Visions of Budhardin." Old women walk "on their knees up the marble aisle to kiss the relics" and Eddy and Manny try to visit all the neighborbood churches in "Hot Ice." "The Woman Who Fainted" does so at the 11:15 mass. Stanley's girlfriend lives across from the Assumption Church, leading him to call her "the Unadulterated one." To the young protagonists in these stories, the church represents the mystery of old world culture—of Polishness itself.
Consequently, Dybek frequently turns to childhood experiences with the clergy, the parochial school, and the rituals and mysteries of Eastern European Catholicism in order to develop plot and theme. There is little that is peaceful, consoling, or even attractive in these memories and experiences, however. We read about the cruelty of Father O'Donnel. We meet Sister Monica who loses her teaching assignment because she becomes hysterical in front of her fifth grade class. We listen to the narrator of "The Dead in Korea," remembering how he was made to kneel on three-cornered drafting rulers in parochial school. At the same time, Dybek writes about the mystical attractions of Catholicism that draw his young people toward familiar ritual and ceremony despite their growing skepticism. This is perhaps best expressed in "Hot Ice," where Manny and Eddie reenact a childhood ritual of visiting seven churches on Good Friday afternoon. They walk from St. Roman's to St. Michael's, from St. Kasimir's to St. Anne's, from St. Pius's to St. Adalbert's, then finally to the church of St. Procopius. At first, they merely peek in and leave, "as if touching base." But soon their "familiarity with small rituals quickly returned: dipping their fingers in the holy water font by the door, making the automatic sign of the cross as they passed the life-sized crucified Christs that hung in the vestibules where old women and school kids clustered to kiss the spikes in the bronze or bloody plaster feet."
Dybek makes it clear that the pull of Catholicism is both spiritual and cultural and that it is rooted in the immigrant experience itself. He makes this connection through the recurring presence of old people, the last of the immigrant generation. Usually these characters are grandparents engaged in helping third generation youngsters understand their cultural identity. Dzia Dzia in "Chopin in Winter," Busha in "Blood Soup," the old man in "The Apprentice," and Gran in "A Minor Mood" all help to introduce their grandchildren to Polish history, tradition, and temperament.
At other times Dybek integrates the immigrant generation into the mystique of Polish Catholicism. He does this primarily through repeated references to older women involved in one form of worship or another. The narrator of "The Woman Who Fainted," intrigued by the ritualistic fainting that often occurs at the 11:15 mass, observes the hand of an "old woman in a babushka" that darts out to correct the dress hem of the fainting lady. In "Chopin in Winter," Mrs. Kubiak joins the regulars at morning mass, "wearing babushkas and dressed in black like a sodality of widows droning endless mournful litanies." And in "Good Friday" a two-page story published in Gulf Coast, the young narrator, entranced with the church organ, the statues, Sister Monica, the incense and the holy water, focuses ultimately on the "old women, babushkaed in black, weeping as they walk on their knees up the marble aisle to the altar in order to kiss the relic." These people, Dybek implies, are nothing less than old world culture transfigured into the new world. In this sense Dybek captures both the attraction and rejection of whatever it is that Polish culture has come to mean in post-war America.
In fact, rejection and denial and the subsequent reshaping of cultural identify are essential ingredients of the ethnicization that occurs in these stories. In a very real sense all of Dybek's fiction is about social disorganization and reorganization in the classic sense of these principles outlined by Thomas and Znaniecki in The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. The alienation that exists in Dybek's younger characters results as much from cultural tensions, however, as it does from socioeconomics and shifting philosophical perspectives. Typically, Dybek contrasts the immigrant generation with its third generation descendants with an eye toward showing cultural transformation, or he describes the simultaneous act of acquiring and rejecting a cultural past. While "ethnicity" is still the norm by which his protagonists view the world, Dybek insists that contemporary urban ethnicity must be defined differently from that of preceding time periods. Thus he attempts to differentiate between old and new ethnicity even in his ethnically Polish characters.
For example, while Dybek on the one hand offers sympathetic portraits of grandparents and other first generation Americans of Polish descent and sensitively explores the essentials of Polish culture, he on the other hand frequently presents these cultural representatives as eccentric grotesques out of touch with the times and their adopted culture. Typically he portrays the immigrant generation as the cultural "other" rather than as the cultural norm. In fact, the more Polish the characters are, the more eccentric and grotesque they and their cultural practices tend to look to the reader. The "Palatski Man," the opening story in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, sets this tone and outlines this direction. The palatski man, not dignified with any other name, is a rather frightening and threatening figure (at least to the two youngsters in the story). He is an exotic street vendor who appears to live with the peddlers, ragpickers, and other cultural outsiders in makeshift housing near an urban dumping ground. The food he sells is culturally unrecognizable although Slavic sounding. His white clothing and white cart, while ordinary enough, are undercut by his foreign-sounding English (although we never hear him talk) and his involvement in Palm Sunday Eucharistic rituals with other ragmen. Although we do not learn the palatski man's cultural heritage, his characterization, his ragged associates, and their surreal surroundings create an atmosphere of strangeness and alienation toward the culture represented by the word palatski.
This point of view permeates those stories involving Americans of Polish descent. In "The Cat Woman," Dybek almost rushes to associate ethnicity with strangeness when he calls the woman buzka, introduces her "crazy grandson as Swantek," and then proceeds to explain that Buzka drowned the excess neighborhood kittens in her washing machine. With this introduction, the ethnicity of the immigrant generation (buzka) and those (Swantek) who remain most closely associated with their old world habits is enough to divorce it from the cultural norm. "No one," Dybek succinctly comments, "brought laundry anymore to the old woman." The story ends with grotesque images of despair and degeneration. Swantek sleeps on old drapes beside the furnace, "vomiting up cabbage in the corners and covering it with newspapers," and Buzka and her old friend Mrs. Panova blow on their spoonfuls of soup "with nothing more to say," their radio turned to the polka hour. In other stories, we meet Big Antek, the local drunk; the uncle of Tadeusz, who spends his nights picking up the debris of a culture on the move; and Slavic workers missing parts of hands and arms that have been "chewed off while trying to clean machines" ("Sauerkraut Soup"). Such is the price of the old ethnicity, which in this case is represented as servile labor, alcoholism, a meanness toward animals, a taste for cabbage soup, and, most importantly, as descent from an inferior national culture.
In these rather traditional interpretations of second and third generation behavior, the usual signifiers of ethnicity—language, religion, history, customs and other conventional cultural markers—lose their privileged position even though they remain as a frame of reference. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in his adolescent protagonists' ambivalent relationship with Catholicism, which in Polish terms is inextricably and historically tied to nationalism. In other words a rejection of Catholicism is tantamount in these cases to a rejection of national, that is to say Polish, identity. "Visions of Budhardin," "The Long Thoughts," "The Woman Who Fainted," and "Sauerkraut Soup" all dramatize the act of coming to terms with the religion of descent. One narrator, remembering his parochial education, explains what he regarded as the fear underlying religion, and reveals that the summer "after my sophomore year in high school was the last summer I went to church." Those who continue to at tend do so from habit and custom. In "Hot Ice," Eddie admits that "he had given up, and the ache left behind couldn't be called grief." In "Visions of Budhardin," the protagonist, in a rage of pent up resentment, ravages the church which so callously ignored his childhood needs. But Marzek in "Sauerkraut Soup" speaks for all Dybek's disillusioned Polish Catholics when he says: "I had already developed my basic principle of Catholic education—the Double Reverse: (1) suspect what they teach you; (2) study what they condemn." The words and deeds of these characters document their hostility to the culture of their ancestors and their inability to any longer understand or sympathize with this kind of ethnicity.
In effect, Dybek shows the transformation from immigrant to ethnic and beyond. Throughout, a sense of loss is coupled with an acceptance of change as his spokespersons lament the disappearance of the Polish southside. The narrator in "Blight" returns to his old neighborhood after a few years and confesses that he "was back in my neighborhood, but lost, everything at once familiar and strange, and I knew if I tried to run, my feet would be like lead, and if I stepped off a curb, I'd drop through space." Dybek thus points to a condition of ethnicity that characterizes the American Polish community as the recently published stories of Anthony Bukoski (Children of Strangers) also makes clear. In Dybek's stories, as in Bukoski's, the core of old world Polish culture is almost lost. Neighborhood demographics and Parish churches have changed, and only a few Polish-born Americans are left to transmit and interpret Polish traditions and customs. In "Blood Soup," Uncle Joe's meat market is full of Mexican kids and Big Antek explains to Stefush that, in regard to his efforts to help his grandma make her beloved old world soup, "we don't sell fresh blood no more." Mrs. Gowumpe (pigeon, in Polish) tells Stefush how things were: "I used to work in the yards," he explains. "All those DPs working there … Polacks, Lugans, Bohunks. People who knew how to be happy." Now Mr. Gowumpe, grandma Busha, the palatski man, and the other first generation Poles are poor, isolated, lonely, and few in number. Nonetheless, they are the voice of cultural memory.
Dybek's fiction is not elegiac, however. Ethnicity is positive, pervasive, and dynamic in these stories; and the movement is toward a new understanding of ethnicity that is based not on national origins but on a shared sense of ethnicity as a condition of Americanness. Dybek's protagonists aren't Poles; they're not even Polish- American by traditional definition. They have, paradoxically, reinvented and reinterpreted themselves (Fischer 1950). For this generation ethnicity is a sociopolitical reality, a sensitivity to pluralism, and, as James Clifford phrases it, "a conjunctural not essential" state of mind. More than that, ethnicity is not even a necessary condition of descent because for Stuart Dybek cultural pluralism has supplanted nationality and a new level of multicultural awareness has replaced ethnocentricity. Dybek himself calls attention to this in an essay entitled "You Can't Step Into the Same Street Twice": "Besides the ethnic tribes of Slavs and Hispanics whose language and music and food smells permeated the streets, there was another tribe, one that in a way transcended nationality, a tribe of youth, of kids born to replenish the species recently depleted by WW II."
In his stories, Dybek replicates the tribal and cultural landscape of Chicago. Those who live in the older ethnic neighborhoods have experienced a change from a basically Eastern European population to a mixed neighborhood of Americans of Hispanic and Slavic descent, primarily Mexican and Polish. More importantly, Dybek's third generation fellow Polish ethnics are just as frequently paired with Hispanic friends as with fellow "Poles": Ziggy Zilinski and Pepper Rosado in "Blight," Eddy Kapusta and Manny and Pancho Santoro in "Hot Ice," Ray Cruz and John in "The Palatski Man." There are few instances of ethnic rivalry in this landscape. Quite the contrary, the commingling of Latino and Slav is economic, sociological, and cultural-a product of shifting demographics and resulting neighborhood changes, the result of shared environment and social class. They both identify with and like "the other." From this a new sense of ethnicity—an emblem of contemporary America—arises.
On the surface, the new ethnicity appears to be nothing more than the camaraderie of friends thrown together by demographics. In reality, the union of Pole and Chicano represents the changing face of America and of Polish Americanness. Stanley Rosado is Pepper to some and Stashu to others, reflecting his Mexican father and Polish mother. When David, the descendent of Poles, goes to a bar with friend, he drinks a Coca-Nana rather than vodka or piwo. The Mexican music on the jukebox sounds "suspiciously like polkas." David now listens to "CuCuRuCuCu Paloma" on the radio, and Eddie Kapusta sings in Spanish.
Tellingly, Eddie identifies more with Spanish than he does with the Polish language. He is struck with the word juilota (pigeon). It seems the perfect word because in it "he could hear both their cooing and the whistling rush of their wings." Equally telling, Eddie cannot remember "any words like that in Polish, which his grandma had spoken to him when he was little." Eddie's relatives may likely turn out to be Hispanic in the sense that Richard Rodriguez, in Hunger of Memory, believes that he may become Asian. In the words of Rosalie Murphy Baum, "multicultural contact has defeated the ethnic norm."
When all is said and done, Dybek's ethnic characters seem to say that "what they are" doesn't really matter in terms of history, language, geography. The new urban ethnic accepts ethnicity while rejecting nationality. Traditional ethnic borders give way to a heightened social and moral sense that replaces geographic maps and national origins. In "Hot Ice," Eddie Kapusta arrives at this insight: "Most everything from that world had changed or disappeared, but the old women had endured—Polish, Bohemian, Spanish, he knew it didn't matter; they were the same … a common pain of loss seemed to burn at the core of their lives." Grandma in "Pet Milk" is illustrative. She knows about the old country and the new, where "all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together down at the staticky right end" of the radio dial. Grandma also seems to know that ethnicity in America means something more than national origin. Consequently she is happy to listen to the Greek station or the Ukrainian or the Spanish although, of course, she would prefer listening to polkas. And in "Hot Ice," Eddie elaborates on the changing face of ethnicity when he admits to himself, "Manny could be talking Spanish; I could be talking Polish…. It didn't matter. What meant something was sitting at the table together."
What also matters is that in Dybek's hands the Polish ethnic self assumes what some may regard as a new identity. And Dybek emerges as a writer who offers examples of the way experience, history, and ethnicity crossbreed. To be sure, Dybek does indeed try to present the preciousness of America's Polish heritage and the exceptionalism of the ethnically Polish American. He is, at the same time, eager to resist parochialism and exclusivity. His characterization of his young heroes and heroines as romantic rebels and urbanized American versions of Keats, Proust, Dostoevsky and others whom they have read, leads him beyond mere ethnicity even though his fiction is rooted in the cultural neighborhoods of southside Chicago. While attempting to capture the unique flavor of a particular ethnic group, Dybek has created a multi-layered and multi-dimensional ethnic self. This self reflects the image of a transethnic urban America, a diorama of a diverse cultural landscape where ethnicity transcends national origins but remains vital and where the ethnic and the modern self are not only compatible but are the essence of postmodernism and, as Andrew Greeley puts it, "a way of being American."
Source: Thomas S. Gladsky, "From Ethnicity to Multiculturalism: The Fiction of Stuart Dybek," in MELUS, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer 1995, pp. 105-18.
Kakutani, Michiko, "Lyrical Loss and Desolation of Misfits in Chicago, in New York Times Book Review, April 20, 1990, p. C31.
Lee, Don, Review of The Coast of Chicago, in Ploughshares, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring 1991, pp. 228-29.
"Noted by the Editors," in Antioch Review, Vol. 48, No. 4, Fall 1990, pp. 545-46.
Casey, Maud, "Chicago Stories: A Profile of Stuart Dybek," in Poets & Writers, Vol. 31, No. 6, November/December 2003, pp. 34-40.
This cover story, published just as Dybek's book I Sailed with Magellan was about to come out, contains background information about his life in the location where the story is set, as well as information about his career and influences.
Gladsky, Thomas S., "From Ethnicity to Multiculturalism: The Fiction of Stuart Dybek," in Melus, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer 1995, pp. 105-18.
This thorough examination of Dybek's stories includes background information about the Polish American literary tradition.
Kantowicz, Edward, "Polish Chicago: Survival Through Solidarity," in Ethnic Chicago: A Multicultural Portrait, edited by Melvin G. Holli and Peter d'A. Jones, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1977, pp. 173-98.
Kantowicz looks at the history of Chicago's Polish community, one of the city's dominant ethnic groups, based in the neighborhood that Dybek discusses in the story.
Kirch, Claire, "Windy City Oracle: Stuart Dybek," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 250, No. 44, November 3, 2003, pp. 49-51.
This article, based on an interview with Dybek, outlines his thoughts about writing and about the ways the publishing business changed over the years he has been a writer.
Nickel, Mike, and Adrian Smith, "An Interview with Stuart Dybek," in Chicago Review, Vol. 43, No. 1, Winter 1997, pp. 87-102.
In addition to other issues, Dybek talks about being labeled a "Chicago writer," despite the fact that he has not lived in Chicago in years.
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