The Coast of Chicago

What a perfect Christmas gift. I’ve been picking up books of short stories in the bookstores lately but haven’t pulled the trigger. The author, Stuart Dybek, is a Chicagoan now living in Kalamazoo and teaching at Western Michigan University. His collection of his short stories was critically acclaimed and chosen for One Book, One Chicago in Spring 2004.

I can’t remember the last time I read a book of short stories. I had Interpreter of Maladies in my hands at Borders the other day but put it down (also a One Book, One Chicago choice in Fall 2006). I may grab it now that I’ve enjoyed this book.

I have to go into short stories with a different mindset. There just isn’t time for the author to plate things up for me. I was at times frustrated with the symbolism and darkness, but it grew on me. I think it grew on me because of the Chicago connection. Each story incorporates the sights and sounds of Chicago as observed through a born and bred Chicagoan; kind of like Back to Earth incorporates the sights and sounds of the backcountry through a man born and bred with a huge respect for the outdoors. These reading experiences had similarities and differences.

In the last paragraph of my take on Back to Earth, note that I was inspired to “live smaller, to minimize my impact on the globe, to find beauty in nature even if I don’t live in the woods.” Yes, I was inspired, but the inspiration was shallow because I can’t duplicate Temple’s outdoor experiences while living through this cold, dark, and depressing Chicago winter. Temple regularly viewed massive, snow-capped peaks outlined against a brilliant blue sky. I get to view the Chicago skyline. Well, at least the bottom half of it below the low hanging clouds. But what Dybek taught me is that there are plenty of sensory experiences in this great city, even in the dark of night, that can enlighten and inspire.

In fact, I did have an observation the other day that wouldn’t have been there had I not been a reader. And after reading Dybek, I am all the more respectful of the experience. Let me dig into it.

Listen, and don’t forget this, the winter of 2008 was nasty. Not because of any great, single-day snowfall or record breaking cold. But because it just kept coming at you. It just kept throwing wind, rain, snow, cold and darkness at you. Day after day, week after week. It started on New Year’s Eve and it’s now mid February – still nasty. We only had 11 minutes of sun the whole first week of February.

A few weeks ago there was a one-day respite from the cold and the temp spiked up into the high 30s. During this time, I had occasion to walk from the heart of the loop to the west loop before rush hour. I had just left a good meeting and my spirits were high, which was in complete contrast to the moist, quiet blackness that enveloped me as I trudged through the loop. Somewhere, above the fog and clouds, the sun was providing just enough light to make it feel like it was daytime. Plenty of snow was sitting around, but its whiteness was just a memory. My jacket was open, my hat was off, but it was not a refreshing warmth. I was struck with a feeling that I had while reading The Road. The feeling that the light may never come back.

But I knew it would come back, which allowed me to appreciate this day more; to revel in the beauty of the city even in the bleak landscape. Which is what I think Dybek does. It seems like much of it takes place under viaducts, on gray concrete, and shrouded in clouds. Which, from living here, is for real. But he finds the good in this. If you’re an urban dweller, these stories will hit home.