Book of the Week: ‘Ecstatic Cahoots’ by Stuart Dybek

We’re in the middle of a short story renaissance, with writers like George Saunders being granted nobility status, and younger practitioners of the form like Laura van den Berg and Paula Bomer helping to push short fiction into the spotlight — and the future. So it’s only fitting that we pay tribute to Stuart Dybek, who, at 72, has been steadily producing some of the best American short stories since some of his contemporaries were in diapers, and is only rivaled by Lydia Davis in terms of ability to fit so much into so little space.

But he’s too busy for tributes right now; he just released two new books of short stories, Paper Lantern and Ecstatic Cahoots. The echo from the latter rings in your ears just a bit longer, because it contains 50 stories, many of which get the job done in just one page. The sheer effect of that many stories in under 200 pages could be enough to leave any head spinning; that isn’t the case with Dybek, who handles the simplest words, situations, and people with the utmost respect, giving you reason to savor every moment spent with his work.

It almost seems funny to say that it’s the little things that make Dybek’s stories — that are little in word count, but nothing else — truly stand out. A story like “Brisket,” just a hair over three pages long, is a perfect example of how much ground he’s able cover in as little space as possible. The story, about a man who is down on his luck and wants a sandwich, is set inside some old-school deli — the setting is easy to conjure up without Dybek getting into every little detail of its appearance. Instead, he talks about the food:

The stacked pastrami was decked out in zooty 1950s colors; blushing pink meat in a carapace of black pepper.

You’re instantly transported to some small, forgotten cousin of Katz’s Deli, with the “kosher franks and kraut, dangling salamis, tukus, house-hickory smoked turkey, trout, sablefish, and two kinds of knishes,” plus just about every other kind of food Eastern Europeans once feasted on. By listing off the menu, Dybek puts you right there. The man’s hard life tale comes next, and you see it all so perfectly because of how effectively Dybek situates the reader in the story.

His hometown of Chicago, its gray skies, forgotten neighborhoods, and working class citizens from all over the globe, usually provide the setting for Dybek’s work. You can see the man waiting to confess to his favorite priest, the one who’s usually drunk, hungover, or passed out, walking into the old church on the South Side. If you’ve ever been to the city during one of its infamous winters, you know Dybek’s observation that the cold is enough for one of his characters “to wear” is an appropriate summation. If you haven’t been there, Dybek makes it all instantly recognizable, and his uncanny ability to provide such filling small bites gives every reader something to savor.