I Sailed With Magellan
By Stuart Dybek
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 307 pp., $24
The "Chicago novel" is a tradition of gritty realism which evolved from such classics as Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie," Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," and Richard Wright's "Native Son." These books typically involve a protagonist whose disillusionment and loss of innocence are somehow tied to the Chicago neighborhood in which they live. Stuart Dybek's new novel in stories, "I Sailed With Magellan," fits this part of the Chicago tradition. But it also includes a remarkable lyricism and structural spontaneity that reimagine the tradition.
In a series of 11 linked stories, which take place in the 1950s and '60s, readers "grow up" with Perry Katzek, a first-generation Polish immigrant. It is all here: the relative innocence of childhood, the cruelty of adolescence, the anxious exhilaration of high school. The Chicago neighborhood that forms Perry's identity, Little Village, is a beautiful and brutal place -- a bloody street fight on one corner, an elated child prancing in an open hydrant on the other. Within this context Dybek opens up the life of a working-class urban immigrant family with an emotional complexity and acuity that has few parallels.
Maya Angelou once wrote that "a child's talent to endure stems from the absence of alternatives." Perry and his younger brother Mick inherit this "talent" from their father, who grew up in Poland and who, at age 11, worked three jobs to help provide for his five younger siblings, after their alcoholic father left them. Perry and Mick's nickname for their father is "Sir." But he is less stern than the name implies. He is serious, loyal, and frugal. Perry says his father "inhabited another America, a distant place like Dickens's London or Gogol's Moscow. He feared that we, his sons, would go wanting, and that fear had set him at odds with us."
Perry is often upset by his father's frugality. In "Blue Boy," Sir and the boys set out one evening in December to enact a "terribly embarrassing family tradition." They trudge from lot to lot in the cold with their sled in search of a bargain Christmas tree. Sir's dickering with the vendors seems cheap and petty to the boys.
Perry's frustration with his father is laid against a parallel image later in the same story. He dreams that he and his father are taking a dead car battery to a garage on a freezing cold night to get it recharged. Perry is pulling the battery on a sled. Later he glances back to be sure the load hasn't fallen and realizes "it's my father, blue with cold and reduced to an ancient child the compressed weight of a battery, which I'm pulling."
These images align with yet another one, in a different story. At his father's funeral, Perry's aunt Olga shares a memory about her older brother: "One year, when we barely had enough to eat, he somehow managed to show up with a tree on Christmas Eve, because, he said, our family shouldn't be without one."
Perry's father carried the burden of his young siblings in the old world, yet Perry dreams he must now pull his father through the new one. The juxtaposition of such stories/images reveals the relationship between past and present. At times they seem to merge. So do dream and memory. Once, after Mick has moved to New York, he asks Perry if he thinks "dreaming is a kind of remembering." And if that's true, "why wouldn't memory be a kind of dream?" Perry's best "answer" comes later, in a different story: "Memory is the channel by which the past conducts its powerful energy," he writes. "It's how the past continues to love."
There are only a few such meta-passages in the novel, but they help thematically weave the stories together. At one point Dybek contemplates the limits of literary forms. In "Lunch at the Loyola Arms," Perry lives in a small bare room in a rundown hotel. A girlfriend, who like Perry is interested in literature and writing, most admires the expansive form of the novel. She looks at Perry's bookshelf and says, "You think that life is a Great Moments collection. Look at all those undernourished-looking books of poetry." Perry's response is "I'm living my life like haiku. Syllable by syllable."
Here, Dybek, also a gifted poet, seems to wonder if what divides poetry and fiction, or other literary forms, is more like a membrane than a hard line. The "Great Moments" that Dybek creates in this novel are not snapshots. They explode and extend time, rather than frame or limit it. In Greek terms, they are moments of kairos (the immeasurable "fullness of time") rather than chronos (a measurable numeric "point in time"). They bridge past and present, dream and memory. They are stones dropped in a still pond, the growing rings still reaching for the reader long after he has put the book down.
In "A Minor Mood," the next-to-last story, this is clearly exemplified. Perry is thinking about his uncle Lefty, an alcoholic musician and Korean War vet who is near the end of his life. Here Perry somehow "remembers," or dreams, of his uncle Lefty's childhood -- about the mornings Lefty ("Louis") would stay home sick with his grandmother: "white steam on one side of the pane, white snow on the other -- propped on a throne of pillows with the babushka . . . wound around his swollen glands; with menthol, eucalytpus, camphor, lemon, and through the steam, his gran materializing with a mug in one hand and a bottle of Beam in the other."
Perry then reflects on this dream/memory, on how the past continues to love: "Those were mornings to be tucked away at the heart of life so that later whenever one needed to draw upon a recollection of joy in order to get through troubled times it would be there." This enthralling novel may perform a similar function for readers, who will undoubtedly hear parts of their own stories in Perry Katzek's.
Tom Montgomery-Fate is a professor of English at College of DuPage, in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and the author of "Beyond the White Noise," a book of personal essays.