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Budding Genius

Can 65-year-old Stuart Dybek silence critics who say the MacArthur Foundation picks authors who are over-the-hill?

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There's something wonderfully cheesy about the MacArthur Fellows Program, which since 1981 has been dropping a small fortune and the mantle of genius on its grant recipients. The program is pretty genius itself, with a mystique anchored in that moment when the phone rings and the gift is announced, "out of the blue--$500,000--no strings," as the foundation headlined its press release this year. I'm reminded of The Millionaire, a fictional 1950s TV series in which a super-rich recluse, John Beresford Tipton, amused himself by conferring sudden wealth on randomly selected ordinary folk and observing the consequences. In that exquisite moment when the knock came, the unsuspecting recipients would open the door to find Tipton's emissary, a cashier's check for a million dollars in hand.

For Chicagoan Stuart Dybek, who distills poetry, prose, and magic from his blue-collar, second-generation Polish-immigrant origins on the southwest side, the call came early one morning last week, to Evanston's Homestead hotel, where he's been living for the last year. The voice was familiar, an acquaintance he hadn't heard from for a while: "Are you up?" was the first question. "Are you sitting down?" was the next. Dybek says he was taken totally by surprise even after that opening--and despite the fact that in many ways he was a predictable choice.

Unlike Tipton's gifts, the MacArthurs are not given randomly. Part of the mystique is the corps of hundreds of anonymous nominators: like Big Brother, they're out there watching, listening, and developing lists that, in a famously secretive process, are scrutinized, debated, and winnowed to the 20 to 25 fellows selected annually. Chosen for their "creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future," they can be working at anything, according to the foundation: "The imagination of MacArthur Fellows knows neither boundaries nor the constraints of age, place and field." But observers like Slate's David Plotz have tracked some patterns: liberals, academics with eccentric interests or theories, and urban coast dwellers, for example, have collected an outsize share of the loot. Word is that the nominators can include a few former winners, and Dybek hangs out with some of them, including Aleksandar Hemon, Edward Hirsch, and poet laureate Charles Simic.

Even so, Dybek says he wasn't thinking about the fellowships. At least not this time around. Five or six years ago, someone--clearly violating a cardinal rule--told him he'd been suggested for the award. "I thought it was kind of him to nominate me, but I didn't get it, and that was the last I thought of it," Dybek says. "Anybody'd want one, but there are so many deserving writers, and I've been around for a while. I've had other grants--a Guggenheim, a Lannan--and I've had this basic feeling 'you ought to be satisfied with getting anything.'"

For the last two years, Dybek's been Northwestern University's first "distinguished writer in residence," a five-year appointment. But when he entered Loyola University in 1960 he was placed in remedial English. "My test scores were so low after four years at Saint Rita," he says. "I was a terrible, terrible student. I loved writing, but I couldn't spell." He graduated from Loyola with "about a 2.1 average" and toiled as a Cook County social worker long enough to lose his illusions about what could be accomplished in that job. Loyola professor Tom Gorman prodded him to return for a master's in English; after getting it, he taught for two years in the Virgin Islands, then attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop. From 1974 to 2006 he was an English professor at Western Michigan University. He's published two books of poetry and three of fiction: Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (1980), The Coast of Chicago (1990), and I Sailed With Magellan (2003).

The "genius" grants (a nickname the foundation eschews) aren't meant to be lifetime achievement awards. Though they're based on past performance, the foundation has taken pains to insist they're a bet on the future--an investment in what people with good track records will turn out if given time and means. The foundation doesn't keep strict tabs on the results, but others have noted that some of the fellows seem to be less productive after their good fortune than they were before. Two years ago Crain's Chicago Business studied MacArthur literary winners' subsequent awards, critical assessments, and output and concluded that 88 percent had already done their best work when they got the MacArthur cash. According to Crain's, the fellowships were going to writers "mostly chosen too late in their careers, average age 48."

Dybek is 65 and has been putting out a book or two every decade. He would rather not be judged by a tally: "Do I think I'm prolific? No. Do I think I'm more prolific than it seems I am? Yes." Dybek says his modus operandi--writing short stories and publishing them individually in magazines, then revising and combining them in novels--gives a misleading impression. "There's actually more done than there's evidence of. I'm not talking about work in the dreaming stage. I'm talking about stuff that's been published." The fellowship, distributed over a five-year period, will enable him to pass up outside gigs--including readings, which can be "very distracting." He plans to pull together four books he's been working on: a childhood memoir, a book of poems set in the Caribbean, an interrelated collection of stories, and a collection of miscellaneous short prose pieces. And there's something new he'd like to try: after seeing several of his works adapted for the stage by others--most recently Claudia Allen's version of Magellan at Victory Gardens--he wants to give playwriting a spin.

If he manages all that, he'll double his canon. But in the end, quantity's not his game. A relentless rewriter, he works--even in prose--like a poet, "swimming upstream," he says, against the pure abstraction of language, trying to make writing like the more sensual art forms: "like music, like painting, give it a smell, make sounds out of it, rhythms, working with whatever resources--the mouth feel of words." He's been diving into that stream for four decades, pulling out treasures and polishing them, and he still can't live on the income his writing alone provides. The Millionaire wanted to teach us that money doesn't really fix anything, but the show's enthralled viewers knew better. Money can buy time; money can buy freedom. We'll see if it can nurture the best Dybek yet.

This week Dybek got another dramatic call: he's just been selected as the 2007 winner of the Rea Award, given to a single writer annually for contributions to the short-story genre. Previous winners include Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike; the prize is $30,000. But word came on Monday, the day before the MacArthurs were announced to the public. If Crain's does another study, it probably won't count.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Stuart Dybeck photo by Jim Newberry.

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