“Crafted, well-made stories” – The Start of Something by Stuart Dybek

The Start of Something is a retrospective collection of Stuart Dybek’s short stories, beginning with his latest stories and going back chronologically to Dybek’s first collection. As with many retrospectives it is the consistency, the refining of preoccupations and situations, that becomes clear.

Dybek’s stories occupy a similar world to Nelson Algren’s fiction, Chicago during “those years between Korea and Vietnam”, and his characters are drawn from a similar group of Polish-American immigrants. Dybek’s fictional world has an easier humour and its focus is on family dynamics. At times Dybek’s immigrants could be those of Willa Cather, tough pioneers such as an itinerant grandfather, introduced in ‘Chopin in Winter’ with the observation: “most of what I knew of Deia-Dzia’s past had mainly to do with the history of his feet.”

The subject of these stories are consequences, the inevitability of a moment when it is seen in the past and the consciousness that the present moment is already past. In ‘We Didn’t’, a young couple try to lose their virginities while a corpse floats a few metres away:

“we slammed together still feeling for the perfect fit, still in the Here groping for an Eternity that was only a fine adjustment away.”

The stories search for those pivotal moments that are never identifiable while they are being experienced, as the young hero of ‘We Didn’t’ reflects later: “there wasn’t a particular night when we finally broke up.”

These thoughtful, often captivating, stories ask literary questions of ordinary life. For Dybek life is lived as imaginatively as the act of writing, both require the shaping hand of creation when looking back at the past. One of the wittier stories, ‘Waiting’, involves repeated musings on the theme of waiting in Ernest Hemingway’s work, and in Joyce’s, in ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ and Faulkner’s work: “the inescapable conclusion is that life – not just life on the page but life at its core – waits.” He extends this so that it is not only life and short stories that are imaginative, so are relationships: “they wait for love, which is, as such stories go, indistinguishable from waiting for life.”

In ‘The Start of Something’, Gil buys a pair of vintage trousers and over the next few pages he imagines the beginning and end of an entire relationship: “all the questions are already in motion between them.” Short stories, like life, is all about the ordering of material, the desire for order: “I know what’s going to happen like it already happened.”

Any Cop?: Crafted, well-made stories that give permanence to those fleeting moments that define lives, “fiction – ‘the lie through which we tell the truth,’ as Camus famously said.”



James Doyle


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