On the Good Ship Complicated
Buckle That Life Preserver Securely Across Your Breasts!
by Stuart Dybek
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux) $24
The 11 linked short stories in Stuart Dybek's I Sailed with Magellan are a perplexing, vivid, and most circuitous voyage. The loose narrative of working-class life on Chicago's South Side takes detours to Memphis, New York, and New Orleans; runs back and forth over several decades (visiting ghosts of Christmases and grandmothers past); and deploys an exhausting cast of aggressively colorful characters, hastening through their myriad tragedies and small joys. The writerly workmanship here is admirable, as is an intensity that sears some images to the mind's eye; the challenge is in keeping that mind's eye open through the book's more effortful stretches.
Pity the reader who is not taking notes during the 60-plus pages of the story unfortunately entitled "Breasts": Joey is a doped-up mobster procrastinating making a hit, waylaid meanwhile by a series of old girlfriends; Roman Ziprinski is a psychologically scarred one-armed war vet whose bar, the Zip Inn, is the target of a mob shakedown; and Teo is a former masked Mexican wrestler, now a store detective, whose rooftop pigeons are bringing him messages pertaining to both winners at the track and the Kennedy assassination. The intermingling of their tribulations with the heavy-handed return to the theme of breasts, along with a couple of flights of fancy in italics, is an aerobic reading experience indeed. It has its rewards, among which are one of Joey's (possibly hallucinated) paramours raving Ophelia-like in an alley, her bare feet bloody, and the cinematic lushness of the assassination he finally carries out.
"Breasts" is one of only two stories in the collection told in third person; the rest are from the viewpoint of Perry Katzek, traversing back and forth (and back and forth again, sometimes in the same story) across the first 20-some years of his life. In the initial tales, Perry's uncle Lefty (musician, former boxer, vet, drunk) takes him to bars to sing for money, and Perry makes trouble with the nuns in Catholic school, fights with his little brother Mick, listens to the neighbors beat their puppy, and gets beaten himself by his father. It's kind of like Angela's Ashes, American-style, and the bittersweet self-consciousness feels force-fed. But the narrative catches fire when Dybek charges moments with immediacy; when Perry's moth-eaten Boys' Club marching band is led by its crazed, baton-wielding director into a black neighborhood, the strange elation is punctured by shouts of "Hey! Shut that honky shit up down there!" and an inglorious total unraveling.
I Sailed with Magellan's memoir-like reminiscences shade into the outright maudlin in "Blue Boy," an overwrought story of a schoolmate's death that concludes thusly: "How many others back then pretended to pray when what they were doing was crying in secret--in secret even from themselves? Or perhaps, praying because they thought they should have cried or should continue to cry for what they'd forgotten or would forget. Praying because one grief connects with another, and feeling insists upon being expressed, even if only in secret as prayer...." What seems forgotten here is the virtue of subtext, of leaving some feelings (no matter how insistent) blessedly unexpressed.
The stories of I Sailed with Magellan's last half see Perry entering adulthood, from his doomed prom night to his first seedy apartment and through a couple of amorphous romances. Dybek nicely captures the peculiar lassitude and ambition of that age--the naming of an as yet nonexistent literary magazine (to be called Obscurity) while passing a jug of cheap wine. The mutual narcissism of young love, with all its fraughtness, is rendered tenderly, and mostly without the clarion reiterations of theme found earlier.
The intertwined-story setup feels contrived and confusing, the natural quality of the later stories clashing weirdly with the fervent remembrances of those at the outset. A long, complicated piece like "Breasts" seems to want to be a novel of its own; this is what's so frustrating about the book--so much richness at such an impetuous pace. The intermittent descent into sentimentality is jarring, as when a lyrical recollection of a grandmother's Vicks VapoRub and Jim Beam ministrations grinds to a halt with the line "Suddenly, it's clear to him that memory is the channel by which the past conducts its powerful energy; it's how the past continues to love." It's this lack of subtlety that mars this collection most.
Stuart Dybek reads at Elliott Bay Book Company (101 S Main St, 624-6600) on Fri Dec 5 at 7:30 pm