Loitering got to me. I’ve read Charles D’Ambrosio’s short stories in the New Yorker, so I’d nod knowingly when a friend or colleague raved about his collections. What really excited those same friends and colleagues though, what lowered their tones, made them more conspiratorial, were his essays. In their attempts to describe them, I kept getting caught up in the settings: a Pentecostal “hell house,” a Russian orphanage, the cold Pacific waters of Neah Bay. I imagined a great writer could put us in those situations and wring a terrific story out of them. But what I didn’t get until I finished dogearing this book, was what D’Ambrosio brings to these subjects.
There is family trauma (one brother shot himself in the author’s bedroom; another brother attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge), which has bearing on nearly every page. The vocabulary is as vast and dexterously employed as any I’ve read in years, and the ability to put readers not at the ticket booth to a “hell house,” nor in the doorway of an orphanage, but behind the eyes of an agile writer, is where the real magic lies in his writing. That he manages to wield this trauma and wordliness without being too morose or academic is further proof of his gifts.
Which were, by all accounts, pretty hard to access until recently. These essays were originally published in a limited-print run in 2005 as Orphans. Tin House Books has rescued and renamed the collection, adding seven new stories. The bird’s eye view of these essays, what they’re “about,” can be somewhat misleading. He’s in a Russian orphanage in the essay “Orphans,” but the devastating details—the magazine cutouts as wall art, the hoarded Walkman batteries—are much more important than the history of the facility or the staff who run it, as absent from the final draft as adults in a Peanuts strip. The story is framed by his flight and the hassle of post-Soviet travel. The first-person account brings a gallows-humor levity to what might otherwise be a dark affair. Conveniently (for the narrative), there are a pair of Americans on the flight who are actually on the way to Russia to adopt a child. She seems genuinely nice, in a Midwest way, but her husband is “an emphatic person the way people are tenors or baritones… It wasn’t a conversation; he was just beating the air like a rug, hoping to knock all the doubt and ambiguity out of it.” It’s about an orphanage, but also about a writer visiting an orphanage, and mostly about the writer himself.
D’Ambrosio is able to maintain this balance without veering into territory that fees like confessional essay by retreating, either to self-efface his unwavering personal slant (“Obviously I was equating depth with darkness and darkness with cold and cold with silence and all of the above with a nearly insane state of isolation—OK, with my father.”) or dialing back the diamond-precision of his vocab. In “One More Paradise,” his report on visiting a Texas eco-village called Biosquat, he reflects on using an outdoor tricycle toilet: “It didn’t stink at all… and crapping alfresco is always nice.”
Ultimately, almost every essay in this collection makes Charles D’Ambrosio its subject. The title essay finds him witnessing a police standoff, but the discourse evolves into subjects infinitely more cerebral. It’s the news as anti-news; I can’t even recall if a shot is fired in the course of the story. In “Any Resemblance To Anyone Living,” we’re given something closer to memoir. I loved reading with the author as the true subject, and the effect that a few offhand remarks made by a slightly suffocative student has on this brilliant observer of people.
The last third of the collection shifts the inward focus. His essays on Richard Hugo, Richard Brautigan, and J.D. Salinger give him a chance to unpack someone else’s text. It’s refreshing to read a great writer go to bat for a book as maligned after high school as The Catcher in the Rye. I guess it’s good he came to it as an adult, which is sort of how I feel about most of the essays in this book: I’m just glad he was there. I’m glad he went on the hunt for whale meat; it led to astute passages about the freedom to make your own mistakes. I’m grateful that he attended the trial of Mary Kay Letourneau; elsewise, we might not have these scalpel-sharp ruminations on language and intent. Charles D’Ambrosio is a brilliant onlooker, loitering in the doorway, on the outskirts of his stories. And if we’re giving thanks—it is the holiday, after all—I’m thankful that there is now an in-print collection of these essays. If my tone gets low and conspiratorial with you, at least now I’ll be able to point you in the right direction.
Publisher: Tin House Books
Pub date: November 11, 2014
Reviewed by Andrew Wetzel