Hot Ice by Stuart Dybek, 1984
The magic trick:
Blending realism with the poetic to create a world of epic beauty
“Hot Ice” is the most perfect story I have ever read. 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. Cliché as it may be to say, the descriptions and details are cinematic. 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. In “Hot Ice,” we get the mysterious red lights at the prison and the church, the many religious symbols, the dry ice, the old icehouse standing sad but strong through the many years and changes in the neighborhood, and – finally – the beautifully bookended image of the girl in the block of ice.
The plot never looks back, and yet, by story’s end every line feels like a completed circle. It is truly remarkable. We all know the world does not work like this, in neat circles and framing devices. 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? In “Hot Ice,” the author aims for beauty and achieves perfection. And that’s quite a trick on Dybek’s part.
Most everything from that world had changed or disappeared, but the old women had endured – Polish, Bohemian, Spanish, he knew it didn’t matter; they were the same, dressed in black coats and babushkas the way holy statues wore violet, in constant mourning. 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. In a way he had given up, and the ache left behind couldn’t be called grief. 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.
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