Stuart Dybek's stories occupy a territory somewhere between Vladimir Nabokov and Nelson Algren — beguiled by the play of language but also gritty and specific, fundamentally urban at their core. This makes sense, I suppose: Born in 1942, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a native of Chicago, Dybek is a product of the classroom and the streets. Although he's received a Guggenheim and a MacArthur "genius" grant, he doesn't publish often; his last book of fiction, "I Sailed With Magellan," came out in 2003.
And yet, to read him is to be reminded of the resonance of small moments, the connections that arise and dissipate with the passing power of a thought. "[T]he story might at first be no more than a scent," Dybek observes in "Fiction": "a measure of the time spent folded in a cedar drawer that's detectable on a silk camisole." What he's getting at is the power of inference, the longing implied, and inspired, by a gesture or a phrase.
"Fiction" comes late in "Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories." The book takes its title from a line in "The Great Gatsby": "First he nodded politely, and then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we'd been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time." It's a superlative collection, and its appearance would be notable even if it weren't accompanied by a companion volume, "Paper Lantern: Love Stories," which has been published simultaneously.
The acuity of such a move resides in the relationship of the books to each other; each can be read on its own terms, but it is in the juxtaposition that they deepen as we notice echoes, interactions, reprises.
The long story "Oceanic," for instance, which appears in "Paper Lantern," begins with the death of a girl who "drowned herself at beaches up and down the coast so that lifeguards might resuscitate her, and in the process she swallowed their souls."
The territory is classic Dybek, specific yet oddly dreamlike, but the real significance emerges only in conjunction with "The Kiss," a story in "Ecstatic Cahoots," in which a similar young woman does not drown but is revived. The girl who dies in pursuit of stolen souls and the one saved by a kiss of life become two sides of a single character, until their stories merge.
The point is that literature is conditional, that there is always another way a narrative can go. It is the writer's job, then, to make choices — or better yet, to ask questions, questions that don't (that cannot) resolve in the same way twice.
For Dybek, this interplay of stories motivates both books, which circle back on themselves and each other like a pair of hungry snakes. "Ecstatic Cahoots" opens with two lines of dialogue — "You're going to leave your watch on?" / "You're leaving on your cross?" — that recur throughout the collection, each time in a different circumstance. It's a fascinating repetition because it suggests the impossibility of ever coming together even in the most intimate moment: an idea to which these stories regularly return.
In the story "Paper Lantern," a scientist, at work on a time machine, watches his lab burn while remembering how "in another time, if not another life, I once snapped a photograph of a woman I was with as she watched fire blaze out of control along a river in Chicago." The picture, the memory, becomes its own kind of time machine, although the moment remains at arm's length. The novella length "Four Deuces" offers a different take on distance; its narrator, a bar owner whose lover has run off, is unreliable, perhaps delusional, unable to find intimacy even with herself.
"I had no proverbial flashbacks of scenes from my life, only an eerily calm recognition of the obliteration that lurked at the center of each moment — moments I'd taken for granted," admits the Dybek-like protagonist of "Waiting," a writer who reflects on Dawn Powell and Ernest Hemingway while waiting for his girlfriend to choose between him and another man. Such characters are, in the most fundamental sense, at large — not just in the world or with their loved ones but also in the landscape of their lives.
This, of course, is why we have stories, although stories go only so far. It is Dybek's sneaky genius to encode this in the textures of his work. Again and again, we get a notion of what might have been, of life or narrative going in different ways.
In the magnificent "Córdoba," a young man gets a ride from a stranger who turns on him over a woman's phone number, while "Coat" intercuts the drama of a first date with the unraveling that comes after; "He'd be better off running," Dybek writes, "in the opposite direction through the three speeds of rain away from the bar, but he's outdistanced whatever advice or hunches the past or the future might afford him."
For Dybek, this is the whole idea, to trace the tension between desire and action, between imagination and (let's call it) life. His stories are sharply self-aware, full of references, and yet they never feel contrived. Rather, they evoke a wistful yearning, in which the act of telling can do only so much.
"Everyone turned toward where I knelt in shadow and listened," he writes in "Aria." "And when I was finally finished I walked back outside into the snow. There wasn't anything left for me to do once I knew you'd heard my song."
Fifty Short Stories
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 196 pp., $16 paper