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Inaugural Playboy Fiction Review: "Tea Ceremony" by Stuart Dybek

After nearly 20 years of reading Playboy Magazine, I finally started READING Playboy Magazine. In the process I discovered there's all sorts of neat stuff in fiction! Read on...

What better way to kick-off my Playboy fiction reviewing than with a story by the great short fiction writer Stuart Dybek. In terms of his popularity and where he's had the most success, Dybek resides on the academic end of the spectrum of contemporary fiction. In fact, I'd wager that only those well-steeped in the world of academic "program" fiction are likely to have heard of him at all. And if you've never studied writing at the university (grad or post-grad) level and you've still heard of Dybek, then you can consider yourself a Grand Champion contemporary lit fan. Myself, I was exposed to him through my good old friend and resident-expert-on-everything, Andrew Soliday, an alumnus of Western Michigan University, where Dybek taught. All that aside, if you're looking for an accessible entry point into contemporary, literary short fiction, Dybek is a great place to start.

Raised in a working-class Polish community in Chicago, Dybek's voice always carries with it a rough, down-to-earth, and yet at the same time slightly magical quality about it. It's a quirky yet often times captivating mix. He writes about complex human emotions but manages to do so with a little bit of the jester's detachment, conveying the feeling that he knows something you don't. Very often using Chicago as his backdrop, Dybek often writes about relationships between men and women, he also often celebrates his ethnic heritage and humble beginnings while exploring the tension of leaving that all behind.

"Tea Ceremony" is from Dybek's forthcoming collection of (really) short stories, Ecstatic Cahoots. The story explores the highly sex-charged relationship between Gwen and Jack, a couple of young lovers in Chicago (I would presume). The story begins as they get kicked out a movie theater for some manner of fornication. They end up making their way to a small diner where they keep up their penchant for public petting, in spite of the watchful eye of a fortune-telling waitress. The waitress reads Gwen's palm and tells her that their relationship is doomed, that they're "...the wrong chemicals to mix," and that they should not "go near the edge together." Though Jack mocks the waitresses fortune telling skills, as a reader I got the feeling that both he and Gwen know the waitress is correct. But for the present time, neither of them cares.

Like a lot of Dybek's short fiction, this is sort of a thumbnail sketch from which we as the reader are left to extrapolate a larger point. I found the dialogue between Gwen and Jack a little cutesy and unrealistic; however, Dybek does a nice job of capturing the tension, discomfort, and pure hormonal excitement of the characters' mid-20s sexual-chemistry-based relationship. As anyone who's had one knows, those relationships rarely turn into anything lasting, and that very fact informs how the participants in the relationship treat each other.

Dybek is expert at capturing that peculiar feeling of enjoying something, like a relationship, even after you know it's going to come to an end. That feeling is something that all mortals have to grapple with and Dybek's handling of that theme is undoubtedly one of the reasons he's been so successful.


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