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'Sailed With Magellan' by Stuart Dybek; 'The Stranger at the Palazzo D'Oro' by Paul Theroux

Dybek steps lively; Theroux missteps along the way:

Sunday, February 08, 2004

By Sharon Dilworth

Magellan, the 15th-century explorer who dreamt of circumnavigating the Earth, was waylaid by a series of blunders and mutinies. Miscalculating that the Spice Islands were a three-day journey from the shores of Patagonia, he was overwhelmed by the size of the Pacific Ocean.

"I Sailed With Magellan"
By Stuart Dybek
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($24)

"The Stranger at the Palazzo D'Oro"
By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin ($25)


It took the remaining ships four months to reach land again. The men who survived did so by eating rats, sawdust and the leather straps of the sails. And while the title of Stuart Dybek's latest collection recalls the travails of long ago explorations, the generous and expertly crafted stories here navigate a Polish-American neighborhood in Cold War Chicago.

In perfect pitch, Dybek renders the follies of youth detailed in a nostalgic voice that rejoices in a life that no longer exists anywhere in the world except perhaps in barroom bravado.

Perry Katzek, the narrator of these linked stories, renders the dismal details of the quotidian into something magical. We meet Perry as a young tag-along to his Uncle Lefty as they travel the dive bars of Chicago singing for their drink. Perry grows up and, like his Uncle Lefty, is attracted to the schemes and free rides waiting to be discovered among the babushka-covered grandmothers with green mesh bags scouting for valuables in the street.

Unlike Lefty, Perry is young. He and his buddies are optimists, and the stories sail on their good will and belief that their days will achieve greatness simply because they are who they are. You can sense the assurances that their future provides in their every move; they have time to enjoy their days of living on nothing but Cheerios, baked potatoes and bruised fruit.

Perry and his best buddy, Stosh, are rebels. They believe that sleep is an invention meant to keep the young quiet, and they are dead set against it. They revel in the freedom of youth and enjoy their worlds, the reality of which adults wouldn't tolerate: furniture-free apartments without heat, intrusive landlords and broken-down cars. Like the men on Magellan's ships, they survive on their wits. They endure odd girlfriends and misplaced love easily.

These young women who threaten to light themselves on fire are targets for their awe, but also their scorn.

They find deserted beaches that evoke the exotic South Pacific and dreamily look across Lake Michigan only to mistake Gary, Ind., for the dawn of a new day.

One of their get-rich plans involves stealing orchids from the rich part of town, but their botanical savvy leaves something to be desired. Dybek is an evocative stylist. The power in these stories comes from the joy of the given moment; the music of the time brings everything together.

Dybek's characters have nothing; everything received is a gift. Paul Theroux's characters have everything, and therefore life becomes a series of losses.

He started his literary career as a modern-day Magellan; his travel books record fascinating journeys (less miscalculations and not one mutiny) to isolated and unusual places.

The most fascinating was "The Old Patagonian Express," in which Theroux boarded the subway in Boston and then traveled by train all the way (less one plane trip) to the end of Patagonia.

The encounters in his new book, a collection of two novellas and two short stories, open with the same kind of promise as his early travel books.

A young American, Gilford Mariner, traveling in Sicily, is intrigued and than later hired by a Chaldean plastic surgeon to have sex with his patient, a German contessa, too neurotic and needy to find men on her own.

The seduction, described in great detail, is a pleasure for the young man, though for the reader it's mostly a chore.

The characters in Theroux's work are manipulative and self-serving. Their desires, which seem to be solely sexual, limit narrative development. There's a certain soft-core element in each of these pieces, one that might work in highlighting a piece but feels hollow as the main plot device.

His sole use of the erotica trope is somewhat disturbing. Even so, Theroux has the ability to capture people and places that are achingly beautiful. These moments resonant, as in "An African Story;"

"Blacks in South Africa were like serfs in an old Russian novel -- owned, beaten, barefoot hut dwellers worked to death. The setting was not a country but a twilight world of loneliness and squabbles with darkness all around it."

The narrator in "Disheveled Nymphs" is a 60-year-old, very rich lawyer in love with his two maids -- a mother and daughter who spend their spare time and money gambling in Las Vegas. He objectifies them, getting his kicks by watching them wash his car, vacuum the rugs and dust the shelves.

He is surprised by the fact that they have their own desires and concerns. They are oblivious to, then dismissive of his feelings. They clean and talk of psychic networks, the size of dwarves' children and how many of the big singing stars -- Britney, Christina and Justin -- used to be Mouseketeers.

In this last story, the protagonist is the most sympathetic character because Theroux finally allows the reader a brief insight into the man's neediness.

Overall, though, these stories feel jaded and melancholy, as if meeting strangers will inevitably prove disappointing. Ultimately, Theroux doesn't understand that while sex may be fun to participate in, it's not as exciting to read about.

This is something Dybek knows well. His story, "We Didn't," one of the best in his collection, is a young man's lament that he and his girlfriend, though close, never did go all the way. Like Colette, Dybek understands that the best part of a life's journey can be the walk up the bedroom stairs.

Sharon Dilworth is a short-story writer and professor of writing at Carnegie-Mellon University.

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