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.
Josh Henkin is the author of Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, Borders Original Voices Pick, and Booksense Pick. His short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in many journals and newspapers. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, Brooklyn College, and the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Josh lives with his family in Brooklyn.The one most on my mind at the moment is Charles D’Ambrosio’s wonderful story collection The Dead Fish Museum. I first read D’Ambrosio many years ago when his story “The Point” appeared in The New Yorker. It’s the story of a teenage boy forced to take home from a party one of his mother’s dissolute, inebriated friends. “The Point” is about sexual awakening, among other things, and it’s set against the backdrop of the protagonist’s father’s suicide. I still remember many of the images. “She was wearing a silky white slip underneath, the sheen like a bike reflector in the moonlight.” “The Point” was the title story of D’Ambrosio’s first collection, and if I have a favorite story in The Dead Fish Museum it’s probably “Up North” (a sample couple of lines: “I’ve never really liked men on whom I can smell cosmetic products, and it was that morning, in the truck, so close to Steve, that I realized it had nothing to do with the particular soap or aftershave but with the proximity. If I could smell a man, he was too close.”), which is about a man who returns with his wife (she’s cheating on him) to her family’s home for Thanksgiving and is compelled to join the other men in a turkey shoot. In my non-reading life, I’m not particularly drawn to hunting, but there’s an anthology waiting to be compiled (perhaps it already has been, for all I know) of great hunting stories. It would include Richard Ford’s “Great Falls” and Tobias Wolff’s “Hunters in the Snow,” along with D’Ambrosio’s “Up North.”I won’t say too much about Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, lest I be accused of jumping on the bandwagon. But some bandwagons are worth boarding. Everyone and their cousin has raved about the book (Michiko Kakutani and Dwight Garner in the Times and the NYTBR, respectively; James Wood in The New Yorker), though Wood notwithstanding, the Brits have been among the naysayers (contrary to expectations, Netherland didn’t make the Booker short list and in a recent edition of The New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith slammed Netherland and “lyrical realism” more broadly). But I’m with the Americans (and Wood) on this one. Netherland is a lovely, powerful novel, and the comparisons to Gatsby seem apt.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Charles D’Ambrosio is the the author of The Point and Other Stories; Orphans, a collection of essays; and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award. He recently received a Lannan Fellowship.One of the best books I read this year won’t be published until next year but I think it’s insanely great so here goes: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, by David Shields. It’s a kind of chrestomathy that seems to come from one author but in fact is a compendium of quoted passages from writers, rockers, poets and whatnot, all of it traversing the disputed terrain of the real. It’s got a cranky, manifesto feel, its generous, serious, ridiculous, subtle, its ambitious but with a nonchalant throw-away feel like a Lou Reed lyric, its parts are so tightly strung together that you can’t pick a single thread without involving yourself in the whole shivering web. Anybody who writes or thinks or breathes is already living inside the questions raised by Reality Hunger. This book will drive me nuts for years. I think it’s destined to become a classic.Along those lines, my friend Chris Offutt recommended that I read Jonathan Ames’ graphic novel, entitled The Alcoholic. It features a main character named Jonathan A., but after reading the Shields book my mind’s too blown to offer a solid opinion on the autobiographical content, nor do I feel entirely convinced that I should care anymore. The book moved me, perhaps in part because of its inherent simplicity: the black-and-white drawings in those little boxes and the tiny speech bubbles forced the narrative into a directness that was disarming and stabbed right into me. That Jonathan A. is a fucked up guy, but I came away from the book wanting to be a better human being, by renewing my sympathy for all people, starting with my own fucked up self.Continuing along the line of problem selves, I just read Slash’s memoir, which, according the cover, “redefines sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” Memoir is a fairly hifalutin word for the stupefying heroin binge recounted in the book, which doesn’t so much redefine sexdrugsrocknroll as attempt to push the limits of it in a world already without limits. The drug stuff gets old – there’s only so wasted you can get, so that element turns repetitious – but when he’s talking about playing guitar or writing songs or being in a band the whole thing comes to life. It’s like suddenly this immoral, pathological, cruel, cold, blind, very limited, supremely indifferent person is replaced by a really intelligent, sensitive, ambitious, subtle, singularly focused, deeply soulful guy with gravitas and integrity. Clearly people achieve things partly because they have a greatness in them but part of that greatness owes something to their severe limitations. Slash cared only about his band. It was a replacement universe. And inside that universe, he was a human being. Outside – a fucking animal!And finally, last but no way least, there’s Nam Le’s book of stories, The Boat, which plays brilliantly along the edges of something that appears to have concerned me all year, the creation of a new self, the difficulty of identity, the hard task of making reality real. I won’t bend that great book to my own small thematic purposes but couldn’t let this year go by without nodding to it. On its own terms, which are spun out sentence by sentence, The Boat is a terrific collection of stories.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Auther Charles D’Ambrosio has written two collections of short stories, The Point and, this year, The Dead Fish Museum. He also has a collection of essays, Orphans. D’Ambrosio’s stories regularly appear in the New Yorker and other notable magazines. The best book D’Ambrosio read this year was the autobiography of a jazz musician. “Maybe this copping out,” D’Ambrosio says,but the book I’ve loved the most this year is Art Pepper’s autobiography, Straight Life, which was revised and reissued by Da Capo Press in 1994. I know next to nothing about jazz, haven’t listened to a lick of Art Pepper, but a smart guy in a bar in Portland told me I had to pick up the book – we were drinking – and it is, as drunkenly promised, really good. It makes me wish I were an aficionado. Art Pepper lived through all kinds of hell, which may be standard stuff for jazz greats, I don’t know, but what makes Straight Life an excellent read isn’t the sexual compulsion, the heroin, the crime, the brutal life in San Quentin – all juicy reading, for sure – but the intimacy, the way you get inside the dreamy logic of being Art Pepper. With a reality like that, who needs dreams, I guess, but Pepper’s story is, from beginning to end, so sad and soulful it’s like he never happened on our frequency – and this book (along with the music, which I plan to hunt down) is the vibrant record of the peculiar sound he existed in.Thanks Charles!