Finding the words 

Getting hooked on Charles D’Ambrosio

Most of the stories in Charles D’Ambrosio’s The Dead Fish Museum are about 30 pages, which is great because 15 pages in, around when most short stories would be wrapping up, you’ve still got another half to go. This is like discovering in mid-July that you’re having the summer of your life and there’s still six weeks left. Or waking up comfortable and fully rested a good hour before your alarm goes off. Except here there’s no return to school or work looming on the outer edge of happiness, just another 30-page story. Alas, when real life intruded on me and time got short, I found myself shirking responsibilities just so I could sneak a couple more paragraphs. I did the same thing with 2004’s Orphans, D’Ambrosio’s collection of essays, and with “American Bullfrog” and “Jacinta,” two of the best pieces in The Point, his first book of stories.

So what gives? Why are these books so hard to put down? In the case of The Dead Fish Museum, the answer is simple: it’s the language. D’Ambrosio makes his words do exactly as he bids them, whether that is to startle readers with punchy dialogue, to locate the one true thing in an otherwise disastrous relationship, or to explain why a loner is never going to find a place in the world. The language entrances because it always finds its mark and because D’Ambrosio offers the unspoken promise that there’s plenty more to come. Closing the book before finishing a story struck me as unthinkable.

A case in point is an exchange between would-be lovers from “Screenwriter,” the third story in the collection:

“You have a beautiful mouth,” I said. “I’d like to crawl in it and die.”

“I’m twenty-nine years old,” she said. “My mouth is full of dead boys.”

She blew me a kiss.

The story is narrated by a wealthy scriptwriter who has a nervous breakdown after his wife leaves him for an actor who resembles the scriptwriter’s father. Less saddened than overcome by the absurdity of his professional success, the scriptwriter falls in love at the psych ward with a failed ballerina who burns herself. The one destroys his life because he can have anything he desires, the other because she’s been denied the only thing she ever wanted. Coming together, they do not overcome their pain, but rather take the full measure of what’s been lost before retreating back into themselves. Finding her asleep, the narrator says, “I went to her, but the burns covering her body—how would you even hold such a woman? Where exactly do you put your hands on somebody who hurts everywhere? I stopped short. I’d never seen her back before and it was pristine.”

Each of the first three stories in The Dead Fish Museum deals with mental illness, and D’Ambrosio negotiates this terrain tenderly but without ever lapsing into naïve sentiment. People seek each other out, but ultimately remain strangers. In “Drummond & Son” a typewriter repairman acknowledges the chasm between him and his son when a social worker inquires about one of the boy’s symptoms:

Drummond nodded—tardive dyskinesia. Half the words he needed to describe his son he couldn’t spell, and all of them sounded as fantastic and far away as the Mesozoic monsters he had loved so much as a child… Now his boy was the incredible creature, and Drummond’s vocabulary had become lumbering and dinosauric, plodding with polysyllables.

D’Ambrosio understands that the moments of triumph in these relationships come not through diagnosis and prescriptions but through small acts of forbearance. The best Drummond can do is to inhabit an island close to his son’s and watch.

The young married couples don’t fare much better in this collection. In “Up North” Daly condones Caroline’s infidelity because he understands it as a response to some trauma she’s suffered. He tries to save his marriage by respecting her privacy, even as he compulsively reads her diary. His resolve is challenged when the couple goes to Michigan for Thanksgiving with Caroline’s parents and their old friends. One of the older couples has suffered an affair and airs their grievances during the holiday meal, after which Daly reflects: “I had been jarred by the end of dinner, sad for Steve, which surprised me, and sad for Sandy—especially Sandy, the way she lived with the rankling knowledge that she existed in her husband’s affections as a thin anecdote, an illustration of his mediocre griefs.”

Similarly, in “Blessing,” Tony discovers he’s married a stranger when Meagan’s father and brother visit their new home. His wife, it turns out, is a slave to her father’s affections and, worse, carries a strand of his meanness. For D’Ambrosio, happiness amounts to finding salvageable junk among the ruins.

All of this is incredibly depressing, I realize, but the stories take hold because D’Ambrosio renders the sadness with such elegance and precision that language itself seems to offer a way out of the mess. Pieces like the title story and “The Scheme of Things” have a wayward beauty reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. As is the case in Johnson’s masterpiece, reading The Dead Fish Museum you often feel as if you’re wading through floodwaters, but if you look up you’ll see some small beautiful thing flying overhead and wonder how it got there.

Charles D’Ambrosio reads from The Dead Fish Museum Friday, Nov. 3, at 8 PM in the Dell Brown Room of Turner Hall on UM’s campus. Free.

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