Blight by Stuart Dybek, 1985
The magic trick:
Highlighting the southside of Chicago as the story’s main character
It is such a cliché to claim the setting as a character.
‘Oh, the main character in every Woody Allen film is Manhattan.’
‘The best character Faulkner ever created was the American South.’
Give me a break.
So you’ll forgive me for what I am about to type. Chicago is the central character, plot and theme in “Blight.”
Really, it is. I know, I know. But, really, there is no way around it.
“Blight” is a close cousin to “Hot Ice,” another story in Dybek’s The Coast Of Chicago collection that celebrates an ethnic, lower-middle-class childhood in the second city. But where “Hot Ice” dazzles with an array of interconnected and magical plot contrivances, “Blight” works hard at not working the plot much at all. It’s difficult to even pinpoint a timeframe for the story. It appears to a single few months, if we are to take the Chicago White Sox pennant run motif literally. But so much happens. The boys in the story change so much. It begins to feel more like an endless summer bridging childhood to the realities of adulthood.
Which brings us back to Chicago. In lieu of a standard plot, the story revolves around its setting, the way the neighborhoods make the boys feel, the way their insecurity and pride and total sense of self stems from their surroundings. Blight isn’t simply a term assigned to their home; it’s a way of life for them.
So there you go. Much as I hate to say it, Chicago is the main character. And that’s quite a trick on Dybek’s part.
Some nights there would be drag races on Twenty-fifth Place, a dead-end street lined with abandoned factories and junkers that winos dumped along the curb. It was suggested to me more than once that my Chevy should take its rightful place along the curb with the junkers. The dragsters would line up, their machines gleaming, customized, bull-nosed, raked, and chopped, oversize engines revving through chrome pipes; then someone would wave a shirt and they’d explode off, burning rubber down an aisle of wrecks. We’d hang around watching till the cops showed up, then scrape together some gas money and go riding ourselves, me behind the wheel and Ziggly fiddling with the radio, tuning in on the White Sox while everyone else shouted for music.