Review

I Sailed With Magellan

by Stuart Dybek



Stuart Dybek's I SAILED WITH MAGELLAN arrives more than a decade
after his previous book, a short story collection titled THE COAST
OF CHICAGO. While it's neither a blockbuster nor a doorstop tome
like Jeffrey Eugenides's long-awaited MIDDLESEX or Donna Tartt's
years-in-the-making THE LITTLE FRIEND, I SAILED WITH MAGELLAN is
definitely worth the wait, serving as a reintroduction to a writer
who captures his old Chicago neighborhood with documentary detail
and raconteur flourish.

Despite its billing as a novel, I SAILED WITH MAGELLAN is actually
a series of short stories that have locales and characters in
common. All feature a teenage narrator named Perry and all are set
in the Little Village community of Chicago during the early 1960s.
Dybek lovingly and often humorously evokes this time and place
through telling observations.

Poor families use old bed sheets for curtains and veterans order
shots for friends who didn't come back from the war. It's a
dangerous, often discouraging neighborhood, and in strong, unfussy
prose Dybek describes "the daily round of life where bag ladies
combed alleys and the homeless, sleeping in junked cars, were found
frozen to death in winter. Laid-off workmen became wife beaters in
their newfound spare time; welfare mothers in the projects turned
tricks to supplement the family budget; and it seemed that every
day someone lost teeth at one or another of the corner bars."

Fortunately, Dybek lets his lively characters --- including a
junior high writing prodigy named Camille Estrada and a slob hitman
named Joe Ditto --- run wild in this setting. Rather than
engineering plots and scenes for them, Dybek simply lets them tell
their own stories, a rare talent that gives the book a personal,
unrehearsed quality. Plus, it makes for some truly weird goings-on.
As a coming-of-age story, I SAILED WITH MAGELLAN eschews any
predictability in favor of a dreamlike flow of events and
characters, many of which are supersaturated with local
color.

There is, for instance, the Chickenman, who walks around town with
a chicken perching on his head and pecking corn off his tongue. And
there's Little Village's unofficial child saint, Ralphie Poskozim,
who was born with blue skin: "The blue was plainly visible beneath
his blue-green eyes, smudges darker than shadows, as if he'd been
in a fistfight or gotten into his mother's mascara. Even his lips
looked cold."

All of these strange characters are filtered through Perry's
perspective, and as the novel progresses, he grows up and his
concerns become more adult. Fortunately, as Perry gains more
freedom, the stories don't lose their charm or their sense of
wonder.

Memory works in flashes, not in fluid narratives, and it allows for
exaggeration of facts. In the end these chapters cohere into
something larger than a short-story collection, but the book is not
like a proper novel. This is certainly not a criticism: the form of
I SAILED WITH MAGELLAN may be unclassifiable, but its inventiveness
and spirit are undeniable.

Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on January 22, 2011

I Sailed With Magellan
by Stuart Dybek

  • Publication Date: September 9, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 0312424116
  • ISBN-13: 9780312424114