In Praise of Stuart Dybek

By Kevin Rabalais

They appeared in magazines and literary journals with the frequency of a periodic comet, and for those of us who ordered our days so that we could live inside of literature, navigating through the prose and plots and poetry and places of the great works that tell us who we are and who we can be, the mere rumor of a new story by Stuart Dybek incited exhilaration.

It might go something like this: an admired writer or fellow reader would speak with the kind of urgency that a junkie must feel after he learns that, after a long drought, the supply chain has been mended. In other words: there’s a new Stuart Dybek story in the latest issue of Conjunctions or Ploughshares or The Southern Review. These were the days before you could confirm such details with a few keystrokes, so you reached for the telephone. You called the offices of those magazines and others and asked receptionists and editors if it were true, if it could possibly be. And when they confirmed, you needed to be certain that they understood your gratitude for their exquisite literary tastes. You sealed the check inside the envelope before the handle of the phone returned to room temperature.

For what seemed like an eternity, there were only two story collections, slim volumes that were difficult to find. Many now recognize Dybek’s Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (1980) and The Coast of Chicago (1990) as contemporary American classics, but it wasn’t always so. Some writers fall into the category of writer’s writers. The label implies that only other writers read this work. At the turn of this century, I heard one great American writer refer to Dybek as a writer’s writer’s writer.

For Dybek, things began to change in 2014, when he published two collections simultaneously. Reviewing Paper Lantern and Ecstatic Cahoots in The New York Times, Darin Straus called the author “Not only our most relevant writer but maybe our best.” George Saunders deems him “One of the most soulful writers in America, and a national treasure.”

Dybek’s selected stories, The Start of Something, appeared earlier this month. The book contains nineteen stories from five previous collections. It’s an indispensable volume for readers of short fiction and should earn Dybek the international readership that he deserves.

When an author’s books are rare or out of print, and when we’re forced to search long and hard to find them, we appreciate that work all the more. We hold these writers close and should be forgiven for feeling as though they belong to us alone. That’s why I greet the publication of The Start of Something with glee and complicated envy. I’m envious, that is, of all of the readers who encounter this work for the first time—its humor and warmth and breadth of emotions, its continued search for new forms and ways to tell a story. On top of it all, I’m envious of the perpetual elegance of Dybek’s prose and the insight therein.

Throughout his work, Dybek creates moments that startle us even after multiple readings. In “Fiction,” for instance, one character desires to tell his lover a story “without telling the story”:

Fiction—“the lie through which we tell the truth,” as Camus famously said—was at once too paradoxical and yet not mysterious enough. A simpler kind of lie was needed, one that didn’t turn back upon itself and violate the very meaning of lying. A lie without dénouement, epiphany, or escape into revelation, a lie that remained elusive. The only lie he needed was the one that would permit them to keep on going as they had.

It wasn’t the shock of recognition, but the shock of what had become unrecognizable that he now listened for. It wasn’t a suspension of disbelief, but a suspension of common sense that loving her required.

One story in this collection—“We Didn’t”—is worth the price of admission on its own. Then we turn the pages and enter the diverse worlds that Dybek creates in the eighteen other stories included in The Start of Something. He writes with so much intensity and compression that we couldn’t bear this work if it was longer. This is work to start and put aside. Keep it nearby for those occasions when your expectations rise to levels that most writers can’t meet.  Open at random. Feel the charge of a singular writer. 



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