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Wednesday, September 20

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Detour

These three breathtaking collections of short stories, vignettes and essays are all inspired in part by our great city and those who are lucky enough to live here.

The Coast of Chicago, by Stuart Dybek
Whether native or newly transplanted, Chicagoans will recognize the subtle beauty and stark reality of the city depicted in Stuart Dybek's The Coast of Chicago. Dybek's city swirls with memories and motion, darkness and life. There's a sense of returning to a place that has evolved, irrevocably, into a new Chicago, altered by stories of the past.

Structurally, The Coast of Chicago is striking. Dybek intersperses pieces that consist of only a few paragraphs with the longer stories, and effect is similar to that of a surprisingly offbeat staccato melody. One of Dybek's undeniable virtues is his brevity; if a story needs only two pages to tell, he doesn't mince words. "Gold Coast," "Killing Time" and "Everything" are examples of pieces that leave the reader reeling from such a strong yet succinct dose of powerful emotion.

In "Blight," one of the book's most acclaimed stories, Mayor Daley lives everywhere and nowhere simultaneously: his visage apparent in the faces of jowly old neighbors, his presence felt in the signs denoting this neighborhood as one in need of improvement. He's never around, but the kids can feel him in the air. A tight gang of raucous teens who live down by 23rd acts out, cruising the streets, struggling to express its frustration with the blighted area through song.

At least they've got each other, because the rest of Chicago just doesn't understand. We get a glimpse of a North Sider who argues that the North Side has more class because the streets have names. Later, we learn that she's never been to the South Side -- except for a trip to a museum. In a world where a trip to Oak Street Beach is a choice that reflects indisputable taste and a trip uptown on the subway is referred to as heading "north to freedom," these kids are far from oblivious to class distinctions -- they're painfully, angrily aware of their status as the have-nots.

It's "Nighthawks," a series of glimpses into the lives of nocturnal Chicagoans, that really reveals the pseudo-Hellmouth of the city. Dybek explores the goings-on of evening that might be too bleak to examine by daylight. There's something slightly sinister about the cloak of a Chicago evening that brings old loves and regrets bubbling to the surface. A dying relationship revisits itself at dawn in "Gold Coast." A man charts time through past lovers in "The River." And in the final "Nighthawks" piece, the pursuit of a drunken divorcee leads the narrator to question whether he, or anyone, should be awake at all during these ominous hours. It's implied that night sheds light on the ugliest realities, truths that remain concealed by the kinder glow of morning.

The collection concludes with the gorgeous "Pet Milk," a story that begins and ends with the recurring themes of motion and memory: it starts with the swirl of condensed milk in coffee and the ensuing recollection of a grandmother's habits, and concludes with a passionate ride on the El. The protagonist and his girlfriend, drunk with the enthusiasm of youth (and champagne), choose this most public form of Chicago transit for a lovers' embrace, whizzing past the city and its familiar sights en route to Evanston. For anyone who's commuted up north regularly, the story urges you to reexamine your ride with newly appreciative eyes. It's a triumphant conclusion to an insightful work.

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The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros
You might have already read Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street back in high school, but it's worth pulling out your tattered copy and taking a second look. Cisneros's candid depiction of a poor Latino family is more than the sum of all its parts. The echo of heartbreak resounds throughout the stories -- a family wants desperately to fulfill its promises to the kids, but just can't come through. Esperanza, the young protagonist, is crushingly aware of the low expectations others have set for her and her family -- she's learned to set them before anyone else can. The book opens with a jaded lament about the house on Mango Street: "For the time being, Mama says. Temporary, says Papa. But I know how those things go."

With the world-weariness of a senior citizen, Esperanza recounts her family's struggles and triumphs. A sense of remoteness pervades; when talking with her friend Alicia, Esperanza scoffs at the thought of anyone venturing to Mango Street to improve the neighborhood. Like the "Blight" boys, she's all too familiar with urban isolation. Obviously, she reasons, the mayor wouldn't come to our part of town. Cisneros's style is spare and moving; her characters embody both broken dreams and powerful hopes. Read "Hips," a jump-rope testament to the woes and joys of early development, for a toe-tapping literary treat.

The Question of Bruno, by Aleksandar Hemon
For a non-native perspective of the city's contradictions, try The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon. Hemon, who has lived in Chicago since 1992, features his current home as the backdrop of one of the longer stories, "Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls," the name of the protagonist's band. Watch Pronek, a Bosnian exile, fumble through airports and odd jobs, from one filthy apartment to the next. Move with him to Uptown, where his old American acquaintance Andrea flits through careers and men as if on some sort of undefined mission, like a hungry but distracted mosquito.

Chicago, which from the air looks like "a frosted computer-chip board seen from high above," is not a friendly city for our Pronek (and we are made to believe he is ours, like a flimsy rag doll, thanks to numerous possessive references). Far from a shopper's paradise, the Magnificent Mile is austere and foreboding, filled with people marching onward with no thought to their surroundings. It's a menacing avenue of "purchasable joys" that's so revolting it inspires within him cravings for, of all foods, a normally detestable McDonald's hamburger.

The provocative book packs an emotional wallop -- reading it once cover-to-cover won't be enough to absorb the unique blend of historical fiction, memoir, and short story that it presents. The structure can be overwhelming at first; an intense amount of back-story and the many historical references require serious attention and insight (translation: this is no beach book). But the complex read is well worth the time it takes to digest. You'll be sufficiently rewarded by Hemon's distinctive voice and colorfully metaphorical style.

 

About the Author(s)

Jacqueline Ostrowski is managing editor of Centerstage Chicago.

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