george saunders

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The Coast of Chicago

By Stuart Dybek

Dybek, who's from Chicago, writes like Chicago would write if Chicago came to life: kindhearted, sardonic, nostalgic, capable of finding beauty in the most unlikely places (a cup of condensed milk, a street outside a prison). His story "Hot Ice," set in my father's old neighborhood, left me red-faced and near tears in the Chicago Public Library when I first read it. Never before had I understood what fiction could do to you when set in a time and place you knew, instead of some musty black-and-white locale (Hemingway's Spain, Faulkner's Mississippi). These were people I recognized, worrying about things I worried about, in the same stilted, affection-drenched, diphthong-clipped language I spoke. Dybek nails the sweetness under the Chicago toughness, and knows the mythical city, where drowned girls are preserved forever in abandoned icehouses and kids on the El dream of love.