Stuart Dybek's story "Hot Ice" takes place in a changing working-class neighborhood of Chicago during the s. As is typical of much of his work, Dybek mixes realism with fantasy to create a specific sense of place. At the center of the story is an urban legend about a girl who was drowned in a lake in the nearby park decades earlier and then frozen in the local ice house and the miracles that people around the neighborhood attribute to her. Her story affects the lives of three young men: Pancho, who is fanatically religious to the point of mental instability; his brother Manny, the cynic; and Eddie, who feels both the weight of tradition and the struggle to live a good life in a harsh environment. As they move through their days, Dybek renders with precise clarity the details of a city in transition, mixing memories of ice delivery and sharpening carts and streetcars and riding boxcars with the oppressive, looming presence of the county jail and the boarded windows of a neighborhood that is slipping away from memory.
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Everything is here — nostalgia, mystery, community, isolation, tragedy, comedy, and a bounty of beautiful symbolism. If I could figure out how Dybek did this — what magic tricks he employed to create such a masterpiece — I would be a much smarter version of myself. What I can figure out is that Dybek is about the best I know at mixing realism with symbolism. There is no denying the gritty portrait of ethnic Chicago he paints.
The characters and their conversations ring true with every word. The reader feels transported to the Chicago streets through this story. Realistic writing of such quality, taken alone, is quite the magic trick. Dybek blasts into a whole different stratosphere of genius, for me, with his use of symbolism.
His stories work on so many poetic levels. It is truly remarkable. We all know the world does not work like this, in neat circles and framing devices. But put it all together in the story and we have a very realistic world where surreal things happen. It is the same blend that the Coen Brothers do so well in the best of their films.
Symbolism elevates the characters into legend, the plot into fable, and the setting into some kind of magic, heightened reality.
This, my friends, is a very risky way to write. It would be so easy for all of this to collapse under the weight of its own pretense, a shamelessly contrived, overwrought piece of schlock. But better to shoot for the poetic moon rather than hide behind a shield of irony, right? A common pain or loss seemed to burn at the core of their lives, though Eddie had never understood exactly what it was they mourned.
Nor how day after day they had sustained the intensity of their grief. He would have given up long ago. He had no name for it. He had felt it before Pancho or anyone was lost, almost from the start of memory. If it was grief; it was grief for the living. The hymns, with their ancient, keening melodies and mysterious words, had brought the feeling back, but when he tried to discover the source, to give the feeling a name, it eluded him as always, leaving in its place nostalgia and triggered nerves.
Hot Ice, when I read it two decades ago, bent my mind. Being from Chicago, I was immediately taken by the hard scrabble neighborhood settings which I recognized. Yes, it is a most perfect, haunting, atmospheric tale of wonder. Thanx for reviewing. You are commenting using your WordPress.
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‘Hot Ice’ by Stuart Dybek
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A Study Guide for Stuart Dybek's "Hot Ice"