I first heard of Charles D’Ambrosio in a fiction workshop that put a lot of emphasis on craft. By that I mean that every sentence in every short story was examined carefully, not only for its meaning and utility, but for its beauty, its distinction, and, most elusively, for how it “worked” within the entire story. There is a luxury to this approach that sometimes strikes me as too self-conscious, but in the right hands, it can lead to precise, indelible writing. D’Ambrosio’s prose has this rare integrity. In the preface to Loitering, his new essay collection, he writes: “I worked on each of these pieces a stupidly long time, with a determination that was fueled, in part, by vanity. I wanted the writing to live an independent life and not rely on passing opinion or the ephemeral realities of alt-weeklies to make its way in the world.”
D’Ambrosio is probably best known for his short stories, which have been featured in The New Yorker and collected in two books, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum. His essays have been collected once before, in a book called Orphans, but that volume had a limited reach (only 3,500 copies were printed) and D’Ambrosio never got quite the readership he deserved. Loitering corrects that mistake, gathering together the essays from Orphans, along with some new ones that have been published over the past decade. The result is a twenty-year retrospective of D’Ambrosio’s career.
The oldest essays in Loitering were first published in Seattle’s The Stranger, where he was given carte blanche and plenty of space—as long as he didn’t expect a big payday. I can’t imagine another writer using that freedom more wisely. D’Ambrosio’s first essays are among his best, especially “Seattle, 1974,” a beautifully woven memoir about growing up in the Pacific Northwest and feeling estranged from the rest of the country—and then, in turn, being shaped by that feeling of estrangement. It’s a moody, melancholy piece of writing that brought me straight back to the early 1990s, when the West Coast seemed farther away than it does now, and when certain regions of the country seemed to exist in greater isolation.
Another standout essay from that early period is “Whaling Out West,” which circles around a debate between animal-rights groups and the Makah Tribe, who hunt whales. D’Ambrosio gently takes apart the position of animal-rights groups, pointing out how certain animals are romanticized and turned into mascots: “Abstract love is the nosy neighbor of abstract hate…neither one of them really tests disinterestedness, the ability to make tragic choices between things of equal worthiness and legitimacy.” But “Whaling Out West” isn’t only an essay about environmental politics. It’s also about D’Ambrosio ambivalence about whether or not to have children, which he frames in terms of procreation versus extinction: “As the extant capable male in my family, I either perpetuate our name or wipe it off the earth forever.”
D’Ambrosio’s family is never far from his mind. He’s haunted by the suicide of his youngest brother and the attempted suicide of his surviving brother, a legacy he alludes to often and addresses directly in “Documents,” an essay about letters from family members, including a painful correspondence between D’Ambrosio and his father as they try to make sense of their shared loss. In this and other instances, D’Ambrosio’s struggles with his father are laid bare. Of his father’s letters, D’Ambrosio writes: “I’ve often thought that the unit of measure that best suits prose in the human breath, but there was no air in my father’s sentences; he seemed to be suffocating inside them.” There’s frustration in this observation, but also compassion, and you feel D’Ambrosio’s deep connection to his subject.
D’Ambrosio is best on the subject of suicide and family in “Salinger and Sobs,” one of a handful of pieces of literary criticism in this collection. It explores the theme of suicide in Salinger’s fiction and asks how this theme relates to Salinger’s ultimate silence as a writer. Like a lot of people, I read Salinger when I was a teenager and I haven’t looked back much since then. But D’Ambrosio came to Salinger as an adult and his perspective was, to me, utterly refreshing. He rejects the idea that The Catcher in the Rye is a coming of age novel, instead seeing it as a story about the loss of familial identity after the death of a sibling. This is obviously a subject that D’Ambrosio knows about firsthand, and he is onto Salinger in a way that other critics aren’t: “It’s my suspicion that the [familial] refuge isn’t really a haven the way Holden imagines it—nor is it safe for Salinger, who seems to defang his work by taking the parents out of almost every story.” D’Ambrosio is also attuned to the ways that Seymour Glass’s suicide is elided: “Salinger never really looks at the role of parents in family life, and never examines, in particular, their position re: Seymour’s suicide…the other thing not present in Salinger’s work is outright anger toward Seymour or a sense of doubt about him. As Buddy [Glass] describes him, Seymour really has no flaws at all, and to me this absence of flaws and of anger and doubt is a texture that’s conspicuously absent.” D’Ambrosio argues that these omissions feel like a kind of secrecy rather than restraint or artfulness, and he asks how this feeling of secrecy relates to Salinger’s eventual withdrawal from the world.
Another essay that meditates on the subject of absent parents is “Orphans,” an account of D’Ambrosio’s trip to a Russian orphanage. He’s there as a reporter, but he’s not chasing any particular story, he just wants to see what it’s like to live in an orphanage, a world without parents. There are many beautiful and funny passages in this essay, including this one, about the orphanage’s interiors: “Things inside were so worn and rubbed and handled by living beings that the interior had lost a lot of its rectangularity, and was replaced, instead, by a roundedness, a kind of inner burrowed shaped arrived at by working the materials from within, like the nest of wren.”
The mix of criticism, reportage, and memoir in these essays reminded me of Leslie Jamison’s recent collection, The Empathy Exams, and also of Michelle Orange’s 2013 collection, This is Running for Your Life. It’s the kind of hybrid nonfiction that is flourishing right now, thanks in part to the flexibility of Internet outlets. However, D’Ambrosio doesn’t seem to be writing in response to and alongside Internet culture in quite the same way as Orange and Jamison. This could simply be that D’Ambrosio is slightly older (he was born in 1968) and not as profoundly shaped by the medium, or it could be that he takes a slower approach to writing. In any case, he feels like the older brother to this younger generation of essayists, and I was interested to notice that Jamison actually thanks D’Ambrosio in the acknowledgements of The Empathy Exams. Her note provides a little window onto his aesthetic: “I feel an abiding and evolving gratitude to Charlie D’Ambrosio, who taught me early that the problem with an essay can eventually become its subject.”
I like Jamison’s acknowledgement because it explains to me why I had so much trouble summarizing D’Ambrosio’s essays for this review. I kept returning to his preface, his idea of letting his essays “live an independent life.” What I admired most about these essays is the way each one takes its own shape, never conforming to an expected narrative or feeling the need to answer all the questions housed within. D’Ambrosio allows his essays their ambivalence, and this gives ideas space to move freely across time, so that even “Seattle, 1974,” which was published twenty years ago, reflecting upon a time twenty years before, speaks to the present day.