A crowded, episodic novel-in-stories portrays life in a multiethnic midwestern urban enclave pretty much as did Dybek’s memorable story collections (The Coast of Chicago, 1990, etc.).
The scene is Chicago’s fictional “Little Village,” and the focal character (who doesn’t appear in all 11 stories, is Perry Katzek, whom we first encounter in the opening story “Song.” Here, he’s a precocious crooner employed by his Uncle “Lefty” Antic (Korean War vet, self-taught musician, and drunk) to perform at Lefty’s favorite wateringholes, for drinks (bourbon for uncle, root beer for nephew). We also eavesdrop on Perry’s loving rivalry and mischievous collusion with his extroverted younger brother Mick (a day at a nearby beach in “Undertow,” first intimations of adolescent sexuality and premature death in “Blue Boy”). Other tales relate Perry’s efforts to earn a better-late-than-never high-school diploma, while abetting his buddy Stosh’s harebrained scheme to grow and sell “Orchids” (in Chicago, yet); live by himself, become a writer, and plumb the mysteries of womanhood (“Lunch at the Loyola Arms”); and, in a graceful concluding story-coda (“Je Reviens”), pursue a vision of beauty that’s as elusive and deceptive as are most of his other dreams. Uncle Lefty reappears, during his hallucinatory final days, in “A Minor Mood.” And Mick, grown into a professional actor and compulsive vagrant, revisits the old neighborhood where his “ever-fomenting theories that life was essentially about playing roles” were formed, in “Qué Quieres.” Good as these tales are, they’re dwarfed by the aforementioned “Blue Boy,” in which the embryonic writer in Perry responds to early emotional and intellectual challenges; and by the superb novella “Breasts,” a tightly plotted little nightmare depicting the fateful collisions of a mob hit man preoccupied with encountered and remembered images of old girlfriends, a stoical Little Village entrepreneur, and a cross-dressing retired pro wrestler working as a store security cop.
Dybek has become his generation’s Nelson Algren. That’s no small achievement.