Note: I wrote this review months ago for a new site that never came to be. We’re stealin’ it back.
A look at the essays of someone who primarily writes fiction can often be useful in providing backdrop to that fiction. Charles D’Ambrosio published an article in the April 20th edition of The New York Times on his checkered history with residences – residences, because excepting the newest (a large pink house) few of them seemed to have the characteristics one usually associates with home. He describes living in a tiny "shoebox" of an apartment, mentioning obliquely an assortment of roommates that likely provided great fodder for stories, and this shoebox was a step up from his previous residence/job: living in a warehouse, " a cavernous place with no shower or stove or refrigerator… I slept on sofas that were wrapped in plastic, ate off tables marked for discount sales the next day." Best of all was the employment part: rent free, if he set glue traps for rats at night and then got rid of them in the morning. "The worst part of the deal was when a rat stepped into a trap late at night. It wasn’t easy to locate a crying rat in the dark of that vast warehouse, but I always got up, making my rounds by flashlight. Otherwise it would drive me batty, listening all night, because a trapped rat, believe it or not, makes a horrible high-pitched cry like a very faraway, very tiny lost baby."
This sense of searching in the dark for that which will not let us sleep is not that unusual a theme in fiction. What is unusual is the skill with which D’Ambrosio’s "The Dead Fish Museum" teases out unique interpretations of this feeling. The collection opens with "The High Divide," arguably a weaker entry, and from a boy’s point of view tells of life in an orphanage, only to shift abruptly into a story about his friend Donny, and Donny’s father – the three of them out on a hike, coming to terms with some changes. Like every story here, it has shining moments of humor and of that kind of pain that the reader feels strongly because D’Ambrosio knows exactly how to express it, in this case loneliness. The fault of the story could be seen as a fault of the choice of narrator; while D’Ambrosio stays true to the way a pre-teenage boy would tell a story, this results in a disjointed, somewhat haphazard narrative.
From there, D’Ambrosio hits home run after home run. "Drummond & Son" concerns relationships between a typewriter repair shop owner, his dead father, and his schizophrenic son Pete, sitting in the shop day after day, laughing for no apparent reason. After an ill-fated visit from a social worker and a painful walk down the road from another store, when Drummond tells his son "Do your job now," the son resists, deciding to go outside for a smoke first; "’Please,’ Drummond said under his breath. ‘Do your job first.’" Pete goes from typewriter to typewriter, fulfilling his menial assigned task of taking out all the typewriter paper that people have typed their practice nonsense on throughout the day, replacing it with fresh paper. D’Ambrosio perfectly captures the reader in a net of pity for the son and father, pride for the son’s efficient work at this one expected task, sadness for the potential expressed here and the inability of these men to find a way to make it work. D’Ambrosio neither tries nor needs to give us the details of schizophrenia here; what matters is the expectations of one generation following in the footsteps of another, and what must be done when this expectation will not be met.
Other stories find people in search of similar elusive satisfaction. D’Ambrosio peppers these stories with memorable images – the paper gown of a woman in a psychiatric hospital burning away to nothing from a dropped match, leaving her unharmed and nude; a horrible death of a young girl on a farm, in language that is neither overly detailed and yet does not spare the reader the feeling of having been punched in the gut; a bologna sandwich flying out the window of the construction site of a porn set. It speaks to D’Ambrosio’s strong talent that while these people, so lost in their own heads and the meanings of their lives, do not really nail down whatever piece is missing, neither do they entirely fail. As in day-to-day life, the people in these stories find bits and pieces of redemption mixed in with canceled checks and overdue bills. The fact that he populates these memorable stories with people – they do not seem like characters – shows a great storyteller at work, someone who has taken that flashlight out night after night to find the exact spot the wailing comes from.