Comparing Two Linked
Short Story Collections:
Stuart Dybek’s Coast of Chicago
and Rosellen Brown’s
Stuart Dybek’s short story collection The Coast of Chicago and Rosellen Brown’s collection Street Games: Stories have several things in common. Both collections were published in 1991 (okay okay, Street Games was originally published in 1974, republished in 1991— so there’s something a little magical about 1991?). Street Games consists of fourteen stories and is 183 pages long. Coast of Chicago also consists of fourteen stories and is 173 pages long. Each collection is about the desperate, the destitute, the lower class of the big city. As Frederick Busch says in his Introduction to Street Games, which could apply equally well to Coast of Chicago: “[The characters are developed] with the humor of people who are backed up and stacked up and wracked. They survive by telling their stories to themselves and each other and [to] the dreamed-of and the dead. [Brown and Dybek] tell their stories for them.”
The linking device for both collections is geography, a place, and two big cities at that: Street Games is set in a New York neighborhood on fictional (?) George Street. Dybek’s Coast of Chicago is set in Chicago’s South Side, an area long known as the “poorer” side of Chicago. One of the devices Brown uses is to assign all of the stories an address number on the street, with little notes (corner leon, basement, third floor rear) on the story’s lead-in page to add to the illusion and “feel” of a crowded New York neighborhood. While not as specific as street addresses, Dybek does use familiar street names and landmarks throughout to weave continuity and setting through his stories: The home on Eighteenth Street in “Chopin In Winter,” Twenty-Second Street, Spaulding, and seven local churches in “Hot Ice” alone; and the Lake Michigan waterfront throughout.
Another feature these story collections share is that both authors were accomplished poets before they write prose fiction. This may be coincidental, but the result is much beautiful prose, prose steeped in alliteration and assonance and imagery, fiction that often toggles between the cutting and the lyrical.
Fredrick Busch, again in his Introduction to Street Games, says this: “the wonderful prose [sings] with the passion of a person in the throes.” (Brown). Brown is the queen of the concise one-liners: “Somebody once told me I didn’t have welfare mothers’ eyes” (“A Letter to Ishmael in the Grave”); “I know how he dreams me. I know because I dream his dreams” (“How To Win”); one of her women “had sharpened her voice till it was a pointed stick to skewer the world with” (“The Only Way To Make It in New York”). Brown can be quite lyrical as well, even with the harshest subject matter. Take this selection from “Gold”: (Brown, pp. 159-160)
What was that about the gold, she was thinking again, and bumped into a boy about her size who looked at her as though she were scary. Junior told her one day when they were out on the stoop far enough away from the garbage to be able to smell the air, and it was full of that strange — not quite a smell, almost a feeling, better than flowers or perfume, more like endless , black, deep mountains of salt. And damp. More salt than Coney Island ever had. And Junior told her how he read a story in a book at school but it didn’t make much sense and he thought it must be true, and she did too. Somewhere, the book said, the streets are water and salt, the houses are water and salt, the people are water and salt — she was thinking about George Street, seeing it turn all white and crystal when the sun comes out — and an old green island, real as Manhattan over on the far side of the bridge, is lost forever with all its gold and silver still heavy on it.
Stuart Dybek, too, can turn a phrase and paint a picture. His prose leans toward the lyrical, creating a vivid image and flow more often than not. Here is a defining passage from “Chopin In Winter,” the scene of a young boy and his nomadic grandfather sitting the their apartment kitchen listening to the pregnant neighbor play Chopin in her apartment above them: (Dybek, p. 21)
Instead of going into the parlor to read comics or play my cowboys while Mom pored over her correspondence courses, I began spending more time at the kitchen table, lingering over my homework as an excuse. My spelling began to improve, then took a turn toward perfection; the slant of my handwriting reversed toward the right; I began to hear melodies in what had sounded like muffled scales.
Each night Dzia-Dzia would tell me more about Chopin, describing the preludes or ballades or mazurkas, so that even if I hadn’t heard them I could imagine them, especially Dzia-Dzia’s favorites, the nocturnes, shimmering like black pools.
“She’s playing her way through the waltzes,” Dzia-Dzia would tell me, speaking as usual in his low, raspy voice as if we were having a confidential discussion. “She’s young but already knows Chopin’s secret — a waltz can tell more about the soul than a hymn.”
By my bedtime the kitchen table would be shaking so much that it was impossible to practice penmanship any longer. Across from me, Dzia-Dzia, his hair, eyebrows, and ear tufts wild and white, swayed in his chair, with his eyes squeezed closed and a look of rapture on his face as his fingers pummeled the table top. He played the entire width of the table, his body leaning and twisting as his fingers swept the keyboard, left hand pounding at those chords that jangled silverware, while his right raced through runs across tacky oilcloth. His feet pumped the empty bucket. If I watched him, then closed my eyes, it sounded as if two pianos were playing.
Dybek beautifully portrays initiation in process, the wonderful affect of music on the girl upstairs playing to ease her pregnant pain of love lost; of the boy learning to write his letters to music and learning about Chopin and waltzes and souls and life; about the old man Dzia-Dzai, the wanderer, who caught dignity and ecstacy in his last, lowly moments with his family.
Setting is a thread in both collections, though I’d say more emphasis is placed on the setting of Coast of Chicago than Street Games; South Chicago is more like a character than a setting at times. While the neighborhood is a unifying device in Street Games, the emphasis is more on each character and their individual life within the neighborhood — the neighborhood is a place they happen to live, what happens to them and how they deal with it is the story. The bigger common elements of Street Games is that all the characters are “characters of the street,” i.e., there is nothing affluent about any of them, their backgrounds are diverse and their economics are minimal. The major theme is the “games” they play to live their lives on the street, the humor and irony and degrees of sensitivity and callousness they show in dealing with their lives, their very real issues and problems.
Street Games culminates (kind of) in a street carnival, something (one of the rare things) the neighborhood association comes together to plan and execute. It’s a small subtle thread that appears numerous times throughout the stories between association meetings and decorations and the final carnival itself.
The major difference I saw in the two collections was point of view. At VCFA residency in the December 2008, Rosellen Brown said this about point of view (paraphrasing): “One of the first things I decide about a story is whether to tell it from far away, like a landscape with a castle on it; or to tell it like I was looking through a peephole in the fence and focused on the vase of flowers on the table at the entry hall.” Brown’s Street Games is more peephole than landscape. Dybek’s Coast of Chicago is more landscape and panorama than peephole.
Rosellen Brown’s goal was to show how diverse and different her characters could be and yet how much of life’s pains and sorrows and yes joys and jokes they shared while still alive in the same neighborhood in New York. She worked in the canvas of a single time, the present. Stuart Dybek showed more of a panorama over time, a compresence of past, present and future permeated throughout a place and the transient nature of different colored faces and ethnicities. He portrayed the continuation of poverty and rich life experience, and in some cases (such as with the drowned girl in “Hot Ice”) a shared mythology, a collective unconscious brought on by place. Dybek carries his themes through, often in the same story, and then piles his themes on top of one another in the collection to give his panoramic feel.
Dybek’s “Hot Ice” from Coast of Chicago, for instance, begins with: “The saint, a virgin, was uncorrupted. She had been frozen in a block of ice many years ago.” (Dybek, p. 123). He continues by haiving his character Eddie Papusta tell us the myth of Douglass Park and the ice girl: (Dybek, pp. 123-125)
The girl had gone rowing with a couple of guys — some said they were sailors, neighborhood kids going off to war — nobody ever said who exactly or why she went with them, as if it didn’t matter. They rowed her around to the blind side of the little island. Nobody knew what happened there either. It was necessary for each person to imagine it for himself.
They were only joking at first was how Kapusta imagined it, laughing at her broken English, telling her to be friendly or swim home. One of them stroked her hair, gently undid her bun, and as her hair fell cascading over her shoulders surprising them all, the other reached too suddenly for the buttons of her blouse; she tore away so hard the boat rocked violently, her slip and bra split, breasts hung loose, she dove.
Even the sadness was slow motion the way Kapusta imagined it. But once they were in the water the rest went through his mind in a flash — the boat capsizing, the sailors thrashing for the little island, and the girl struggling alone in that sepia water too warm from summer, just barely deep enough for bullheads, with a mud bottom kids said was quicksand exploding into darkness with each kick. He didn’t want to wonder what she remembered as she held her last breath underwater. His mind raced over that to her father wading out into cattails, scooping her half-naked and still limp from the resisting water lilies, and running with her in his arms across the park crying in Polish or Slovak or Bohemian, whatever they were, and then riding with her on the streetcar he wouldn’t let stop until it reached the icehouse he owned, where crazy with grief he sealed her in ice.
“I believe it up to the part about the streetcar,” Manny Santora said that summer when they told each other such stories, talking often about things Manny called weirdness while pitching quarters in front of Buddy’s Bar. “”I don’t believe he hijacked no streetcar, man.”
“What you think, man, he called a cab?” Pancho, Manny;s older brother, asked, winking at Eddie as if he’d scored.
The story itself, told in the “Hot Ice” sub-story “Saints,” was prompted by Eddie Papusta’s riding by Douglas Park Lagoon on the California Street bus, “…a black park now, the lagoon curdled in milky green scum as if it had soured…” (p. 123). The story is the story of death-as-imagined, and is larger than life as told from the young minds of boys about the age of the girl and sailor’s within the story itself. In the crafty hands of Dybek, the story takes on the airs of myth and legend, and he wraps this fantastical story around the gritty reality of Eddie and Manny and Pancho introduced to drugs and prison and death at too early an age, and their day-to-day struggles to deal with and accept it. He also adds a twist with the character Antek, the old neighborhood butcher who claims he was saved from freezing once by a girl in the icebox: “Hey Antek, you know what you can tell me? That girl that saved your life in the meat freezer, did she have good tits?” (Dybek, p. 158)
In grand Aristotilian fashion, Dybek pulls the story together for us in the end. Antek leads the boys to an old ice factory he swears contains the frozen girl, on the same block of the prison where Manny’s brother Pancho died. The boys break in and steal the frozen girl: (Dybek, pp. 163-164)
They pushed off. Rust slowed them at first, but as the tracks inclined toward the river they gained momentum. It was like learning to row. By the trestle they hit their rhythm. Speed became wind — hair blowing, shirts flapping open, the tarp billowing up off the ice. The skyline gleamed ahead, and though Manny couldn’t see the the lake, he could feel it stretching beyond the skyscrapers; he could recall the sudden lightness of freedom he’d felt once when he had speared out underwater and glided effortlessly away, one moment expanding into another, while the flow of water cleansed him of memory, and not even the sound of his own breath disrupted the silence. The smelt would have disappeared to wherever they disappear to, but the fishermen would still be sitting at the edge of the breakwater, their backs to the city, dreaming up fish. And if the fishermen still remembered his name, they might call it again repeatedly in a chorus of voices echoing over the dark surface of the water, but this time, Manny knew, there would be no turning back. He knew now where they were taking her, where she would finally be released. They were rushing through waist-deep weeds, crossing the vast tracts of prairie between the factories, clattering over bridges and viaducts. Below, streetlights shimmered watery in the old industrial neighborhoods. Shiny with sweat, the girl already melting free between them, they forced themselves faster, rowing like a couple of sailors.
Repeated images between this passage and the opening passage quoted above abound. Doubt haunts us, nothing is certain, but it all feels real enough. Again we have the dreamy lyrical quality of the writing and the rhythm, the motion, the mystery, the feeling of destiny and escape, the borders of reality and imagination, of life and death. And through it all, like the character it is, are images of Chicago, the lake, the factories, the never-ending sense of place that is paramount in Dybek’s writing and the linking thread of Coast of Chicago.
A quick word about a technique of Dybek’s that I found quite interesting, effective, and enticing. Within the linked story collection of Coast of Chicago, Dybek uses at least two short stories with “sub-stories,” i.e., stories within stories. In “Nighthawk,” Dybek includes the sub-stories “Silhouettes,” “Laughter,” Everything,” “Killing Time,” “Insomnia,” “Gold Coast,” “Transport,” “The River,” and “Nighthawks” in a retelling of the Greek legend of Orpheus’ journey to the underworld and the River Styx to save his lover Eurydice. In short, these are linked sub-stories within a linked short story collection. In “Hot Ice,” between the opening sub-story “Saints” and final sub-story “Legends” quoted above, are “Amnesia,” “Grief,” and “Nostalgia.” Each sub-story, like each linked story, could stand independently; yet the sub-stories are arguably better within the linked stories; and the linked stories themselves, which can also stand on their own are, arguably, better within the linked short story collection.
As a side note, also interesting to me in my search for how one goes about creating/constructing a linked short story collection (Erdrich, O’Brien and others), Dybek created Coast of Chicago using 10 previously published stories out of the collection’s total fourteen stories (although notably in “somewhat different form” per the acknowledgement’s page). Rosellen Brown, on the other hand, used only two previously published stories when constructing Street Games; she acknowledges in Street Games’ Acknowledgements, that “’Mainlanders’…does not appear here intact but… was the source for at least four of these stories, not to mention the spirit of the whole…” Louise Erdrich and Tim O’Brien, by the way, both used about 50% previously published stories for their linked short story collections Love Medicine and The Things They Carried, respectively. Using previously published work for a linked short story collection without major rewrite strikes me as extremely hard to do (note that that is “previously published” stories, not just “previously written” materials). This accumulating data (i.e., research on how linked short story collections are developed) gives more and more credence to Louise Erdrich’s 2009 answer when asked what she’s writing now: “The same story I’ve been working on my whole life.” (Erdrich, p. 4) I find this tremendously intriguing and fascinating; my respect for those writers that can produce a linked story collection “after the fact” increases exponentially to the number of previously published stories they incorporate — I’ll give them all the “some slight modifications” they want and still be impressed.
Rosellen Brown and Stuart Dybek. Street Games and Coast of Chicago. Two poets turned to prose. Twenty-eight linked stories with similar themes but different approaches. The difference is point of view, the difference is perspective, the difference is admirable, the difference is wondrous. Each may be telling the same stories, but each certainly tells their story in their own unique and beautiful way.
We who read them are better off for having both, and can learn much on our craft from either. Comparing them and relishing the comparison is icing on the cake.
Brown, Rosellen. Street Games. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.
Erdrich, Louise. Love Medicine: Newly Revised Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.
Dybek, Stuart. Coast of Chicago. New York: Picador, 1991.