As a recent transplant to Baltimore, I spend a lot of time sitting on my stoop, watching the pageant of humanity pass by. Perhaps only in the neighborhoods of an American city can you encounter such a wide variety of human life, with transplanted immigrants, college kids, gamblers, junkies, athletes, sports fans, academics, and hard-nosed bartenders streaming past. But however different all of these people are as they bounce between buildings going about their intersecting lives, each seems to be enchanted by the same hope for love in all its permutations.
"There is really only one city for everyone just as there is one major love," Stuart Dybek quotes from the "Diaries of Dawn Powell" in “Paper Lantern: Love Stories,” one of his two new collections of short stories. I’ve thought about this line a lot as I sit on my stoop reading his new stories, because for Dybek, the city is Chicago—the city I moved from and find myself constantly thinking about. And the subject is always those people waiting for love, “which is,” as he writes, “indistinguishable from waiting for life."
This parallel between love and the city is part of what is so appealing about “Paper Lantern.” The city, in his stories, acts as series of moving parts, with its old neighborhoods coming to life, and the lake always within close distance. In 'Four Deuces,' he writes, “I wake like an animal curled in my own fur. It’s Saturday. Nobody in the neighborhood has shoveled, but there’s a twisty, trampled path just wide enough for one, that goes for blocks like it’s leading to St. Pius. After a big snow, you can see that people don’t walk a straight line."
These characters take so naturally to their environment that one can only believe that they belong exactly where Dybek has imagined them. As Joyce wished for his beloved (and hated) Dublin, it is possible that if the city of Chicago were to vanish into thin air, Dybek could recreate it from scratch.
Dybek is not into happenstance irony, but he does revel in the ways that the city creates all of the situations that create a life seemingly by chance. His stories increase our belief in the singularity of each moment, in the way that random encounter can come to feel inevitable, and in the fact that our surroundings and the people we encounter there make the world what it is.
Dybek is not simply a regional writer. His stories extend well beyond the city of Chicago, landing here on my Baltimore stoop. And his unique approach to storytelling, although straightforward and extraordinarily clear, is also strange, misaligned, and, at times, fragmented, as place and time get reshuffled. But by the end of any story, a vociferous well-tuned chorus of instruments and palatable connection brings all of the dischordant notes together.
In fact, Dybek is obsessed with music, as nearly half of the stories, at some point or another, allude to opera or even old rock ‘n’ roll. In ‘Tosca,’ he writes, “Who loves life more, the guy on the Outer Drive riding without a helmet, squinting in the wind, doing seventy in and out of traffic, or the guy with his eyes closed playing 'Moonglow'?"
Despite the constant musical references, as an author, Dybek functions more like a filmmaker, allowing for the backward flow of memory and the forward propulsion of narrative to exist at once. He is patient, and knows how to slow down time. At his best, he takes the lyrical realism of his fellow Chicagoan Saul Bellow and turns it into a cinematic event. His stories are filled with episodes of such imagistic magic that it almost feels like the page is breaking free of its white confines and emerging into the greater world. In the title story, ‘Paper Lantern,’ Dybek writes, “I steady the wheel, waiting for the whump of the trailer’s vacuum as it hurtles by, but the truck stays right on our rear bumper, its enormous radiator grille looming through the rear window, and its headlights reflecting off our mirrors and windshield with a glare that makes us squint. Caught in the high beams, her hair flares like a halo about to burst into flame.”
While the stories of “Paper Lantern” take place in the city, those in the second of his two recent collections, "Ecstatic Cahoots," enter fantastical worlds and magical realist dreamscapes. These stories are so poetic and surreal that they sometimes seem like a stretch for a writer like Dybek, whose pleasures and sorrows are so thoroughly urban. But his strength as a poet and lyricist and the brevity of the stories keep them from feeling forced. In ‘Swing,’ Dybek writes, “On this coast of platinum sand, ravens have interbred with gulls. They perch on the horizon, disrupting the border between sea and sky. The elocution of birds echoes through the nacre vaults and conch cathedrals that litter a shoreline."
With only three previous prose collections, one almost wonders why Dybek did not simply include all the stories in the same collection—but the brevity and levity of “Ecstatic Cahoots” feels foreign to the serious city-bound relationships that motivate “Paper Lantern." They share certain qualities we may call Dybekian, but they are in essentially different modes as different from one another as dreaming and waking.