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Stuart Dybek, I Sailed With Magellan

Stuart Dybek's I Sailed With Magellan is a fine collection of interconnected short stories which beautifully evokes the denizens and physicality of Little Village, a Southwest Side Chicago neighborhood which was the home of both Poles and Mexicans during the 1960s. The stories revolve around Perry Katzek, a third-generation Polish-American. His given name seems odd, particularly when paired with his Old World family name, but it perfectly reflects his family's attempts to assimilate into American society. (As his younger brother Mick says, "Yeah, and don't you think it's a little weird that you, the first-born, get Anglicized to Perry like you're some f'ing admiral, and I get named after our crazy DP grandfather who they left to rot in the state madhouse.")

Dybek presents a fascinating bunch of characters, from Perry and Mick to their junk-scavenging father, to their relatively invisible mother, to Perry's friends Stosh (a pill-popping clerk at Rexall looking ahead unenthusiastically to a career as a pharmacist) and Angel Falcone (a sensitive painter bound for the School of the Art Institute), and various relatives--most notably Uncle Lefty--and other neighborhood creatures.

For me, the best story is "Blue Boy" which tells of Ralphie, born a "blue baby" and not expected to live long, who confounds that prognosis by making it to age eight and thus becomes the neighborhood's miracle. The fact that Ralphie is revered for merely surviving speaks volumes for the locals' modestly humble aspirations:

    When he made it to his eighth birthday, it was a big deal in our neighborhood, Little Village; it meant he'd get his wish, which was to make it to his First Holy Communion later that year, and whether Ralphie realized it or not, a lot of people celebrated with him. At corner taverns, like Juanita's and the Zip Inn, men still wearing their factory steel-toes hoisted boilermakers to the Blue Boy. At St. Roman Church, women said an extra rosary or lit a vigil candle and prayed in English or Polish or Spanish to St. Jude, Patron of Impossible Causes.
    And why not hope for the miracle to continue? In a way, Ralphie was what our parish had instead of a plaster statue of the Madonna that wept real tears or a crucified Christ that dripped blood on Good Friday.

After starting out with three strong stories, the book momentarily loses focus with an overly long story, "Breasts", which focuses primarily on a two-bit mob hit man who lives on the other side of the physical barrier of Western Avenue. "Blue Boy" then follows as a strong return to form, but then as Perry grows up and drifts away from the neighborhood and its wonderfully earthy Poles, the book starts to lose its bearings, as does Perry himself.

But the book rights itself at the end, revolving back to two stories about Perry's Uncle Lefty (including "A Minor Mood", which I have excerpted here). Lefty is a marvelously intriguing character, and quite Algren-esque: a shellshocked Korea veteran, saxophone player, losing horseplayer, former boxer. And ultimately doomed. His name, Lefty Antic, even invokes Algren characters--Lefty Bicek, the protagonist of Never Come Morning, and Antek, the bar owner in The Man With the Golden Arm. I'd love to see Dybek write a novel, or even a novella, which concentrates primarily on Lefty.

February 11, 2005 in Books | Permalink

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