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, 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, ,” 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 s, 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 Jamisons recent collection, The Empathy Exams, and also of Michelle Orange’s collection, This is Running for Your Life. Its the kind of hybrid nonfiction that is flourishing right now, thanks in part to the flexibility of Internet outlets. However, DAmbrosio doesnt 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 DAmbrosio is slightly older (he was born in ) 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, ,” which was published twenty years ago, reflecting upon a time twenty years before, speaks to the present day.
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Hannah Gersen is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of Home Field. Her short stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Chattahoochee Review, among others. Read more at dfknj.wz.cz or sign up for her newsletter here.
Review by Barrett Hathcock Published on December 15,
Published in Issue 38
Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles DAmbrosio. $, pp. Tin House.
Look, lets just get the customer service aspect of this review out of the way first thing: Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles DAmbrosio is worth your time and book-buying dollars. Its DAmbrosios fourth book and second essay collection, and, like everything else hes published, its sensitively perceived and astonishingly well written, and the biggest complaint one can make is that theres not a new collection of his writing to buy on an annual basis.
All that being said, at first glance it does seem slightly strange for a deservedly praised mid-career writer to have a collection of new and collected essays out. That collected seems puzzling; isnt that designation reserved for culminating careers, not gently flourishing ones? Isnt that a signal of an editorial re-shuffling of golden oldies rather than something freshly bound? But it turns out this second collection of nonfiction has an intriguing backstory.
Though Loitering is DAmbrosios second essay collection, it contains the contents of the first. That first book, Orphans, was a small-format edition published by Clear Cut Press back in the late 90s as part of a small press subscription plan. It was a neat idea but it never caught on, and the press imploded, making that book a cult objecta rare bootleg traded below knowing head nods. This collection republishes the 11 essays from Orphans, as well as six new ones. And after buying the book, we should all buy Tin House a round of drinks because DAmbrosio deserves to be republished again and again. He deserves to be pressed into as many tote bags as possible.
The essays are split into three sections. The first two West of the West and Strategies Against Extinction are from Orphans. The last section, Reading Life, is new and contains autobiographically infused literary criticism. On an essay-by-essay basis, the collection is a bit uneven (how could it not be?) but the effect is one of being delightfully rumpled.
In particular, if youre a paragraph underliner, just go ahead and sharpen your pencils. DAmbrosio has some kind of mutant X-ray lyricism. Many of the skills he brings to his stories show up here: his sensitivity to language, his feeling for scene, his collecting of absurd shards of dialogue. Even when he rambles, like in the essay Whaling, you want to hike along and carry his baggage. The best, like the essay Documents, swoop and swirl between scenes and letters to and from various family members, forming an autopsy on family tragedy and denial. Even the more analytical pieces of literary criticism possess kernels of personal experience and move in structurally interesting ways. His essay Salinger and Sobs is hands-down the best criticism Ive ever read on that writer, bringing a perspective unstained by the decades of knowing condescension accumulated by journalists. He actually takes Salinger seriously as a writer, dealing with the shell shock of a suicide within a family, a topic DAmbrosio brings personal gravity to, and you forget all the hermit hunting that haunts his reputation and want to go reread the actual books.
DAmbrosios also got a great feel for nature and geography, a Jim Harrisonlike dogs-nose-to-the-ground, but with a better prose style. His sentences flash by with fine bits of chromium detail (e.g., healthy green cordite leaves circled the room airily overhead, like a string of unripe hearts) but just as often drag linguistic history invisibly behind them. He spends one essay (One More Paradise) ironizing the lingo of an attempted eco-village utopia with his own overdriven eloquence, creating a jargon in parallel. But more than that, DAmbrosio excels at old-fashioned mastery of paragraph construction. This, about his father, is from Documents:
Hed sent my sister a letter smeared with his blood. Hed tried to sell his mentally ill son a cemetery plot. Hed shown up at several of my readings wearing a Chicago Cubs hat dangling with fishing lures, a crown of thorns fashioned from spinners and spoons and treble-hooked crank baits, and then hed just stand there, thirty feet away, staring and saying nothing while I signed books, in a grotesque martyrdom that I somehow understood.
And here he is later in the same essay, describing his walks around Philipsburg, Montana, where hed bring home bones:
Some nights, I dug into the lee of a snowdrift and hollowed a shelter for myself. Snow contains air and insulates, holding the bodys warmth so that, at a certain point, the temperature remains constant, blood and ice in equilibrium. In deep snow, I dragged supplies with a pulk Id made from a childs sled and plastic conduit. I was afraid of avalanches and checked a slope meter before traversing open, treeless hillsides. What I feared was suffocation, particularly the inability to make my chest expand. I really knew nothing about winter, nothing about surviving the season beyond the blunt lesson in fatality Id learned from picking up bones. Sometimes I slept in the open mouths of mine shafts, their crumbled headframes like broken teeth, where twice I found clusters of bats, hanging by their feet, their wings folded in, like the strange fruits of darkness itself.
The last essay, Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg, is based on the poem of the same name by Richard Hugo. Its the longest and most ambitious of the essays in the book, mixing literary criticism, memoir, 9/11, the metaphysics of punctuation, and more. It meanders a little too much and doesnt quite pack the emotional punch of his best essays, but its still riveting in its own way. DAmbrosio seems to be most at home when creating scenes or pushing along little floes of narrative. His writing is comparatively less interesting when it shifts to analysis. When he needs to do some expository work, you can feel him step on the eloquence accelerator. But its still an awfully nice ride.
The consistent thread through all the essays is, of course, the authorial persona of DAmbrosio himself, which comes across as brazenly genuine, a constructed artlessness. His essayistic persona seems exist as having no persona at all, to be completely open and unprotected by irony or schtick or any kind of rhetorical shielding. This makes him vastly different from other contemporary male essayists, be they David Sedaris or David Foster Wallace or John Jeremiah Sullivan, who each deploy various distancing techniques to wink at the reader or to place themselves as characters within their stories. DAmbrosios method is both frightening and appealing. He isnt there jockeying for our approval at the end of every paragraph. Hes a gentler presence, less the bullshitterjust a great, attaching, almost invisible film of attention and sympathy for whatever comes into his purview, the essayist as exuberant cling wrap.
The consequence of this is that you begin to worry about DAmbrosio the character. I like to keep my authors personal lives at arms length, out of respect more than anything, but DAmbrosios life keeps popping up: his familys trauma (one brother a suicide, another a schizophrenic attempted suicide, a father who seemingly goes crazy), and his own morbid, shaky grip on everyday life (there are mentions of mood stabilizers and being supported by family members). The book as a whole begins to seem like a shattered memoir; theres almost enough autobiographical detail to piece together a complete picture. But not quite: we dont know, for instance, if DAmbrosios fallen father is still alive, or exactly how well DAmbrosio has dealt with (is dealing with?) his familys history, which has occurred just outside the margins of the book. By the end, you emerge feeling for him deeply but also just kind of worried about him in a way that borders on sympathy, which feels insulting at the same time. One doesnt want to condescend to him in that way. He doesnt ask for, nor does he particularly need, the readers sympathy. Its generated by the hugely magnanimous spirit of his prose rather than some exhibitionistic gesture on his part. Its a casualty of how well hes written these essays.
Finally, the last feeling that reading DAmbrosios new work leaves you with is a fans greediness for more. For me personally, he fits into a contemporary pantheon of writers who dont publish that often, for whatever reason, but whose each new book is bought instantly, read immediately, and leaves me with a type of gnawing withdrawal. Ive had this feeling reading David Gates, Robert Hass, Lorrie Moore. You will have your own list, possibly. Perhaps the infrequency is necessary to do what they do. If they were to publish more often, their stories and essays wouldnt contain the nutritional density they seem to possess, so its a trade off. Reading an author like DAmbrosio is like discovering a previously unknown natural resource. One wants to protect it while telling the world about it. Of course these are mutually exclusive desires. Either way: welcome to the cult.
Contributing editor Barrett Hathcock is the author of The Portable Son, a collection of stories. He lives in Jackson, Mississippi.
Published in Issue 38
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