Charles D’Ambrosio says that as a young man he turned to fiction in part as a Daedalian act of snobbery against aspects of his Jesuit education. In an essay on J. D. Salinger published in 2001, D’Ambrosio recounts how, during his time at Seattle Prep, reading Joyce and other modern writers became a way to get advice on how to live in a form totally free from judgment. Really good fiction was an antidote to the moralizing of teachers and homilists, giving him a way to look squarely and bravely at lives without criticizing or condemning them. The last phrase is a good description of the aimand accomplishmentof the eight stories that make up The Dead Fish Museum, D’Ambrosio’s second collection of stories and his third published book.
The lives of D’Ambrosio’s characters are often deeply mired in trouble and confusion. The landscape is familiar to readers of contemporary realistic fiction: divorce, violence (often suicidal), calamity and mental illness tear families apart; husbands and wives live together as strangers; lives that seemed to make sense suddenly appear pointless. Populating this collection are characters who find themselves bewildered in the midst of contemporary American society, exhausted and unable to tell their stories or even to understand how they arrived where they are. In the opening scene of the first story, The High Divide, Ignatius Banner, the boy protagonist, asks a tiny branchlike old Chinese woman, who runs the shop where he buys his morning grapefruit, why the woman’s husband is missing. When she utters some syllables in Chinese while making a gesture that suggests something flying away from her heart, Ignatius says: I knew we could go on forever not making any sense.... She hugged herself, like she was cold.... She’d traveled all this way, she’d left China and crossed the ocean and come to Bremerton...but she’d gone too far, because now she couldn’t tell anybody what was happening to her anymore.
In many of these stories, characters respond to having gone too far with a desire to force matters to a conclusion, to hasten an ending that will somehow make sense of the whole confusing mess. In The High Divide, Ignatius is attracted to Catholic ritual as a means of escape from life in the wake of his mother’s death and his father’s madness. In the collection’s title story, the protagonist, a formerly promising screenwriter reduced to working as a carpenter on the set of a porn film, thinks of the gun he carries in his duffle bag as a magic talisman or security blanket and finds comfort in the belief that he can make his own end. The deeply moving jewel of a story Drummond and Son explores a day in the life of a devoted father, a typewriter repairman left alone to care for his much-loved yet utterly exhausting schizophrenic son, as he contemplates placing the young man in an institution. Drummond is an expert in fixing precision instruments that have been abandoned in a world of convenience, yet his apparent inability to reach his own broken son impels him to consider ending the relationship that has so sharply limited and defined his life.
The temptation, in short, for many of D’Ambrosio’s characters is to leap out of their lives to some still point from which they can see the whole and tell, once and for all, what is happening to them. Pervading the collection, however, is a calm and compassionate tone that serves to slow down this drive, to suggest at every turn that the way out of the bewilderment is not found by fast-forwarding to some manufactured eschatological clarity, but by slowing down the pace and attending closely to the hints of meaning embedded in each life’s most seemingly confusing moments. The stories exhibit everywhere something that Kypé, the protagonist of the wonderfully crazy, hallucinatory postmodern quest romance, The Bone Game, discovers in the midst of his failed attempt to find the perfect place to scatter his grandfather’s ashes: the end is everywhere.
D’Ambrosio, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, has a poet’s feel for language and narrative pace. In each of these stories, a moment arrives in which the enda moment of clarity, a hint of transcendence, or an epiphanyarrives, signaled as often by a stylistic, tonal or rhythmic shift as by a dramatic event or spoken realization. Each of the stories has at its core a moment of simple communication of what must be called love, presented without sentimentality, but also without irony, in the midst of a world in which such communication seems unlikely, if not impossible. In The High Divide, Ignatius accepts and eventually passes on to a boy, whom earlier he had savagely beaten, a scapular given to him by Sister Celestine, the head nun at his orphanage. In giving the scapular to Ignatius, Sister Celestine recognizes the source of Ignatius’s despair. It’s not magic, she says, simultaneously demystifying and charging the object with new significance. The scapular is not something to be prayed to, but a reminder that prayer is continuous. What Ignatius needs, she understands, is an aid to living patiently, not a talisman for escape. When Ignatius later gives his scapular to Donny, who has just learned that his parents are divorcing, the gesture links the two boys (and both of their fathers) in a brotherhood of loss and radiates Sister Celestine’s love.
This moment, like similar moments of breakthrough in other stories, does not resolve Ignatius’ or Donny’s crises or end their confusion. In fact, the story leaves us with Donny, his father and Ignatius all hugging themselves in the cold (like the Chinese woman at the beginning) and yelling Hey, hey, hey like so many fools into the darkness. But the moment reveals D’Ambrosio’s gift for attending patiently to broken lives in ways that reveal the resilience of love.