Author Stuart Dybek: Chicago's storyteller

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The way Stuart Dybek tells it, on the night that he decided to become a writer, the moon rose full and bright over Lake Michigan. It had not been an easy decision. His father, an immigrant from Poland who had pushed his way to foreman at the McCormick Works factory on Blue Island Avenue, wanted a doctor in the family. There was also the question of ability: Stuart's test scores in high school had been so low that he had to take remedial English classes his freshman year at Loyola University. Writing for a living seemed like a romantic and misguided notion. And yet, encouraged by a professor to follow his instincts, Stuart told his father that he wanted to be writer. His father "had complicated feelings about this," he said. They argued, and Dybek left the family house in Little Village and drove to Rogers Park and found a quiet spot on the lake alongside Loyola.

"I sat there until 5 in the morning and just thought. The moon was enormous on the water, and, as the sun came up, I became convinced that was it: I was going to be a writer," he said. "It was the closest thing I ever had to a revelation. I would probably end up homeless now, and I was making a terrible mistake, but I had to do it."

I'm not sure I believe this story.

Not entirely. It's a little too perfect. I do believe, however, that Dybek believes it. As he likes to say, his stories begin with memories and end in dreams. Or vice versa. So I guess I believe it exactly as much as I believe that, as a senior at St. Rita of Cascia High School on Western, eager to entertain friends, he wrote a story about a sentient piece of excrement. He told me about this too. This poop, a passenger on the Chicago Ship and Sanitary Canal, becomes aware of its own mortality and, sensing imminent evaporation, begins shouting: "I must see it all!"

Dybek is full of it.

"It" being stories.

And these stories, on the page and in person, being memories turned baroque, then sculpted and given a poignancy and punch — not sentimentality or nostalgia. A boy dreams of a mushroom cloud over Comiskey Park, a man waits on a roof for a tidal wave to rise from Lake Michigan, a dying grandmother sends her grandson to retrieve a magic bowl of blood soup.

"Stuart's short stories simultaneously evoke a Chicago that exists and maybe a Chicago that was," said journalist Alex Kotlowitz, a friend of Dybek's. Said playwright Claudia Allen, whose adaptation of Dybek's 2003 story collection "I Sailed With Magellan" debuted at Victory Gardens Theater in 2007: "When I moved to Chicago in the 1970s, it was the end of Stuart's Chicago. The city was being made beautiful and its Skid Row aspects, which Stuart captures, were fading. Or maybe he dreamed his Chicago? His Chicago has pieces of the real one, but it's a memory play."

Either way, a half-century since his lakeside revelation, Dybek, 72, is the last of the local literary lions now, and one of the few literary links left to the Chicago pantheon of Gwendolyn Brooks, Nelson Algren and Saul Bellow. They had established — until Dybek's first story collection, "Childhood and Other Neighborhoods," was pulled from a slush pile at Viking Press and published in 1980 — a mostly pragmatic, realism-minded tradition.

Also, Dybek looks like Chuck Norris now. That was my first thought as he answered the door of his Evanston apartment a few weeks ago. No longer the short story wunderkind of the 1990s — whose acclaimed 1990 collection, "The Coast of Chicago," drew frequent comparisons to Sherwood Anderson and James Joyce, and became a cornerstone of graduate writing programs — Dybek is nevertheless a boyish 72, trim and fit, with a full head of dark hair and the weary smile of a Chicago cop. For decades he had a mustache, and without it, he looks decades younger. Should Norris be unavailable to play him some day, Gary Oldman could easily step in. And certainly Oldman would relish the accent: Despite decades in academia, Dybek's "dats" and "nuthins" have barely homogenized, still revealing the hard staccato of a childhood in Pilsen and Little Village.

"H'ya doin," he said at the door, dressed in a towel. "You early?"

It wasn't really a question.

Dybek teaches in the undergraduate English program at Northwestern University. About 10 years ago, poet Reginald Gibbons, director of the university's Center for the Writing Arts, lured Dybek there after more than three decades with the faculty at Western Michigan University, giving him a special, Dybek-only distinction: distinguished writer in residence. That said, Dybek's actual residence is distinctly indistinct. Its best feature is a window looking out on the university, Grosse Point Lighthouse and Lake Michigan. On the floor: the guitar he's learning to play. On the bookshelves: Italian poetry, Sandra Cisneros, "Swann's Way," first editions of his first three story collections, "Childhood," "Coast" and "Magellan." Papers and folders are piled on chairs and the kitchen table, which doesn't appear to get a lot of use. The walls are cream-colored and barren. And he does not own a TV.

This might be a literal reading, but, looking around, you get the sense of a man so committed to storytelling that he doesn't need much more than a bed and a place to write — stories don't take up too much space.

It's been 11 years since "I Sailed With Magellan," and, partly because of that drought — and partly because publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux wants to make an event of the occasion — Dybek has not one but two new books out Tuesday, containing 59 stories in total: "Ecstatic Cahoots," a collection of short (and even microscopic, one- and two-paragraph) stories; and "Paper Lantern," a batch of love stories that, as with many of the pieces in "Cahoots," Dybek wrote over the past few decades. Some have appeared in publications as far-flung as the New Yorker and O, The Oprah Magazine.

And, as if that's not enough Dybek to carry you through the next 10 years — his books typically arrive one per decade — on Thursday, Dybek receives the annual Harold Washington Literary Award from the Near South Side Planning Board (the award, to be presented at the Union League Club, typically kicks off the Tribune's Printers Row Lit Fest, which begins Saturday).

That award will take its place in a long line of honors: a MacArthur fellowship, a Guggenheim fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Pen/Malamud prize, four O. Henry Prizes for best short story. In 2004, "The Coast of Chicago" was chosen for the One Book, One Chicago citywide reading program.

The man is so frequently celebrated by fellow writers you might wonder why, more than 40 years into a major career, Dybek never quite became a household name outside of Chicago (or arguably, inside). I asked Tracy Kidder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has been close friends with Dybek since the pair shared an office as master's students at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the early 1970s.

"I don't think it's that Stuart has been neglected, exactly," he said. "He definitely has an intense following among literati. But to be fair, he has not been prolific, and I think that's because he takes teaching so seriously. And being the way he is, he has spent a lot of time just writing recommendations and blurbs for the books of students he once mentored. That takes a lot of time, but also, frankly, the world of books is less fair than most worlds."

Said Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, whom Dybek taught at the Iowa Writers' Workshop years later (one of two writers from Dybek's 1998 class who ended up on the New Yorker's 2010 "Top 20 Under 40" fiction writers list): "The era of a Bellow or any literary writer being a cultural celebrity is gone. We don't live there anymore, but then, Stuart has never been someone to actively encourage a cult of personality around him. I never got the sense he was interested in recognition the way many writers are. I think that energy goes into stories."

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