Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories by Stuart Dybek

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Paperback, 208 pages

Stuart Dybek’s Ecstatic Cahoots is a two-hundred page collection of fifty stories. They’re “bite-sized,” according to the market- ing copy on the back cover: “Call it micro-fiction or mini-fiction, flash fiction, or short stories.” The majority of the stories in this collection range from one to five pages, but there are a few stories that seem rather long for flash, between nine and twelve pages. No matter the classification of this collection, I certainly read these stories expecting the precision, power, and prowess of flash fiction, and Dybek does not disappoint. Finished and prepared during his fellowship with the MacArthur Foundation, these stories were written over a span of twenty years, many appearing in journals like Playboy, Ploughshares, Smokelong Quarterly, and Tin House.

My first encounter with Dybek was with his story “Pet Milk,” which appeared in his collection The Coast of Chicago (1990). Over the years, I have frequently returned to his work. There is a precision to his language and an intimacy with the way he conjures place. In “Brisket,” as an example, a hungry young man walks into a butcher shop with hardly any money. Though it’s the young man that is hungry, the story’s setting takes on a kind of hunger in itself: “the Thuringers invited a plaster of brown mustard…There was corned beef awaiting horseradish…garlic-kissed brisket.” These are not merely props in the background of Dybek’s story, but savory temptations that intensify the narrator’s desire and contribute to the central tension between the narrator and the butcher. In a sense, Dybek’s work provides a ripe model for the craft mantra: all elements in a piece of flash fiction must be essential.

Good flash fiction should succinctly render the essence of a particular situation while simultaneously allowing the rendering to reflect a larger world. Dybek accomplishes this. In fact, one of the pleasures of reading Ecstatic Cahoots—or any collection of flash for that matter—is that stories in a collection are butted against one another, and together they offer a collected glimpse into the potential immensity of both the particular situation and the universal. Dybek’s “A Confluence of Doors,” located early on, is meta- fictional in the sense that it epitomizes the experience of reading the collection. A man adrift at sea for some days encounters an island of floating doors, “a giant jigsaw puzzle…of all designs—plain and ornate, hardwood and pine, some varnished, others painted, all of them weathered.” Traditionally, doors are passageways that allow people to move from one space into another, but these doors will not open. As readers, however, we can still make insights about them. As an example, the “charred-looking” door explicitly suggests trauma in the way that the “elegant” door does not. The tension escalates when the castaway hears a subtle knocking, which gradually grows louder, until there is someone pummeling at each door: “a racket beyond control…like someone banging at the lid of a coffin.” This is what it’s like to read Ecstatic Cahoots—fifty stories, each unique, but still in unison and contributing to Dybek’s larger world.

While many of the stories are set in Chicago, there are some set abroad. In “Here Comes the Sun” a woman travels to a foreign country and takes a “pink paradise taxi” to the sea. Basinio Davis, a local kid “who wants to go to the States and play for the Chicago Bulls” watches her undress on the beach. Similarly, in “Vista Di Mare” the narrator is traveling through Italy, reminiscing on past lovers, and yet moving through the countryside in an all too familiar Chicago facet—trains: “He’s bought a rail pass and is going places in order to ride the trains…” Evidently, the essence of Chicago is something Dybek’s characters carry deep within them, even outside its city limits. Perhaps what fascinates me most about Dybek’s collection is the way he exalts inanimate objects, delving into the histories and migrations of the mundane. The impulse for “The Start of Something” are trousers purchased by Gil at an estate sale. They seem “right out of the Jazz age. They’ve got that drape,” and they’ve inherited that Jay Gatsby, Tom Buchanan, Golden Age adage of extravagance followed by ruin. Dybek explores a kind of butterfly effect through the sensibilities of the trousers in Gil’s life. We learned that the trousers garner the attention of a woman on a bus, who Gil eventually dates; however, in a coke filled apartment on Dearborn, over an old trophy shop, their relationship comes to an end a year later. The final image in the story is Gil’s recollection of the day he first purchased the trousers—a memory now imbued with nostalgia and remorse.

Ecstatic Cahoots is an excellent arrangement of fiction. It offers both subtle and flexible through-lines from which to approach the text, without overtly attempting to clarify the rationale for its arrangement. “Misterioso,” the twelve-word story that introduces the collection, resurfaces in later stories “Marvelous Encounters of My Life” and “Naked,” providing a larger context to the seemingly cryptic exchange:

“You’re going to leave your watch on?”
“You’re leaving on your cross?”

Additionally, characters Marty and Gil recur in a number of stories; their familiarity helped usher me through the essence of Dybek’s otherwise sprawling and diverse Chicago. Overall, this is an engaging and often wonderfully mysterious collection that I will return to as a writer looking to study flash fiction, but also as reader looking for something fun to read and reread.

Raul Palma is a PhD candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an assistant editor of fiction for Prairie Schooner. He is the winner of the 2014 Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Story Prize. His novella, Immaculate Mulch, which was short listed for the Pirate’s Alley Novella Prize, is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press.