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book review

‘Paper Lanterns’ and ‘Ecstatic Cahoots’ by Stuart Dybek

cristiana couciero for the boston globe

It often feels as if Stuart Dybek is perhaps the last American modernist.

The MacArthur Fellowship-winner’s previous story collections smashed together the lyric and realistic traditions, evoking loneliness and longing in a way not felt so powerfully since Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.”

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In his two new collections, “Ecstatic Cahoots” and “Paper Lantern,” Dybek extends his engagement with modernism into a territory it never handled particularly well: passion and love.

Here are bold, frankly erotic tales of transporting force — stories so sensual someone, somewhere, must be reading one aloud to a lover on a rumpled hotel bed.

The books contain more than thrills, though. They work beautifully as fiction because the modernist’s cosmology — that God is not dead, just not present, and time is not linear, but round — cuts to the heart of what love feels like.

“Ecstatic Cahoots” marks the beginning. One by one, these tales introduce lovers in bed, lying by moonlight, colluding against the forces that rule us all. “You’re going to leave your watch on?” one character says to another in “Misterioso,” to which the other responds. “You’re leaving on your cross?”

That’s the whole story.

“Ecstatic Cahoots” borrows its title from a line from “The Great Gatsby,” and it’s a wonderful phrase on which to riff about passion. Ecstasy is an emotion intensely personal, while to be in cahoots means doing it together.

Dybek’s characters are drowning in passion and have no one to hold on to but each other. Most of Dybek’s prior work takes place in or around Chicago. These stories, however, range far and wide, and into abstract spaces — as if to deny characters any toehold but each other.

In “Dark Ages,” a man and a woman in an unnamed European village dive into the running water around a fountain as if they were statue nymphs come to life. In “Tea Ceremony,” a couple duck out of a sleet storm and warm up at a diner.

Again and again, like a musician who has restricted himself to just a few key notes, Dybek in these stories returns to water in its various forms. Ice, snow, rain, and even hail beat down in the foreground, creating a mist through which Dybek’s characters move as if in a dream.

“Córdoba,” the finest piece in “Ecstatic Cahoots,” takes place during a blizzard. Ray, the hero, has become so wrapped up in kissing his girlfriend that he is in danger of missing the last bus and may not get home. He rushes out the door and hitches a ride with a pimp who at first appears to have been hit by Cupid’s arrow.

“This snowstorm,” the man says, describing a woman who just eyed him at a bar, “the whole city shut down, you know, like destiny, man, destiny in a green dress.”

As the man talks, however, it becomes clear he has made a ritual out of seduction. Ray steals the phone number the woman palmed to the guy and races home in the dark.

The elegance with which “Córdoba” shifts from the couch on which Ray sits with his girlfriend to the street, to a bar — where, hilariously, members of the Chicago Bears are drinking — and into the man’s car is extraordinary. Just when you think the story is going to unfold in one place it shifts place, then darts backward in time. And no one captures time’s tidal ebb quite like Dybek.

“Córdoba,” however, is one of the longer stories in “Ecstatic Cahoots.” Most of the others feel like fragments, riffs, while others layer atop one another.

The book is put together more like a jazz set than a story collection.

“Paper Lantern” develops similar themes — the cost of passion, the fine boundary between pleasure and pain — but in a wider range and on a larger scale.

Here is the whole album of love, from infatuation to passion, love to regret, and the ashen taste that lingers when it’s over. The book contains nine stories, ranging in scenarios from a firing squad to a tale told over a bar.

Dybek sounds his notes again — water returns — but his range of registers astounds. In “Tosca,” he wraps a series of tales about love’s immolation around references to opera amid a man’s execution by firing squad.

In “Waiting,” Dybek moves between an almost literary critical mode — commenting on how often Hemingway characters wait — and a smooth tale of a fling that floundered upon a woman’s continual attendance on another man’s needs.

“Four Deuces” reads like a 45-minute solo. An aggrieved woman drinking in a bar tells her story to an off-stage listener: a tale of gambling and victory, of submission and dominance, of love and revenge against a no-good man.

Within “Four Deuces” and “If I Vanished,” a later story about a man trying to recapture a long-dead romance by watching a film, Dybek couches so many digressions that he renders linearity irrelevant. We are in the sound of a voice, inside the trippy logic of love.

If time becomes a circle, though, the morality inherent in that shape requires addressing. Again and again Dybek’s characters return to love, passion, and envy, that fine line between pain and pleasure. Pressing the bruise even when they know it’ll hurt.

We continue to love, Dybek makes clear, because that is what the heart is made to do. But do we need more and more pain to reach ecstasy? Are we love junkies? An answer is buried two-thirds of the way into “Ectastic Cahoots.” “The body is a hotel,” a bellhop thinks, while waiting outside the room of a man about to die.

In other words, we each have a temporary lease. As time turns, the need for intensity — to be inhabited, to feel anything, even if it’s pain — grows. Here, in 59 fantastic stories, Stuart Dybek shows what it feels like when you cannot help but heed the call.

PAPER LANTERN: Love Stories

By Stuart Dybek

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

207 pp., $24

ECSTATIC CAHOOTS: Fifty Short Stories

By Stuart Dybek

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp., paperback, $14

John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.”
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