In the introduction to his new volume of essays, Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio praises the writer MFK Fisher for what he calls, “the right she assumed to be exact about her life.” This is the standard that every non-fiction writer should apply—at the very least those concerned with autobiography—and much of the pleasure in reading D’Ambrosio’s new book arises from his ability to capture complex thought and feeling with the utmost fidelity.
This will come as no news to the cult of D’Ambrosio, many of whom came to him through his short fiction. His two collections, The Point (1995) and The Dead Fish Museum (2006), were hailed by critics and pored over by fans. A smaller but no less ardent contingent admire D’Ambrosio for his essays, a brace of which were collected by Hawthorne Press and published a decade ago. Orphans is a true literary relic: a small shapely paperback that is tough to track down, thanks to a limited print run. I own my own well-thumbed copy; it’s one of the few books I refuse to loan out.
Loitering contains a number of the essays from Orphans, mostly super-charged pieces of reportage, but expands his range of concerns. Much of the work is searingly personal. All of it is illuminated by a devout exploration of his essential topic, human doubt, which, in his formulation, contains “the echo of a precarious faith, that we are more intimately bound to one another by our kindred doubts than our brave conclusions.”
D’Ambrosio was raised in Seattle, the eldest of seven in a chaotic home reigned over by a monstrously angry father. The heart of the collection is a trio of essays that seeks to reckon with the sorrows of his family, primarily the suicide of his youngest brother, Danny, who took his life in the author’s bedroom in 1986. D’Ambrosio describes the suicide note, which he reads two or three times a month, “often enough,” he notes, “that the lines ring like the lines of a poem I know well. All the struggle is still there in the headlong sentences that tumble toward his signature, in the misspelled words and syntactical errors, in the self-conscious language of a boy starved for love and trying, instead, to live a moment more off pride.”
D’Ambrosio writes of his other brother, Mike, a schizophrenic who attempted suicide by jumping off the Aurora Bridge and wound up with a shattered pelvis instead. Or rather, more movingly, he allows Mike to speak for himself. “My heart is still with that kid like you cannot believe,” he writes of Danny. “Or I suppose you could. Love can play a trick on you. It can cause you pain like you were suffering in hell but it is still love and still beautiful like heaven and the heaven and the hell of it are woven into one fabric, which is love.”
In “This Is Living,” D’Ambrosio moves from a consideration of his own mercenary impulses to an aborted reckoning with his father, a financial whiz whose dictatorial rage drove his wife and children away. D’Ambrosio traces the anger back to the violence of his father’s own childhood as the son of a notorious bookie. After witnessing his father beat to his uncle, the senior D’Ambrosio fled in terror. “Terror took my father to the lake and showed him the end of the world, heaving with ice that widened into a gray vastness until the horizon of the sea and sky was soldered shut like a lead seal.” Every trip back to Chicago, D’Ambrosio re-enacts this flight in the hope that he will find his father. “I mean literally find him, still there, an eleven-year-old boy, cold and trembling, with nowhere else to run.”
Elsewhere, D’Ambrosio directs his gaze at some of the shinier precincts of American life. He turns a visit to a prefab home emporium into a meditation on wealth as a path to spiritual legitimacy. “Their zeal was evangelistic,” he writes of the sales staff, “it was memorized and rehearsed and recited like a prayer, it was felt and sincere and thus a notch shy of being spontaneously true.”
He tours Hell House, which provides Christian instruction by means of sadistic cliché. It’s the kind of place where girls bleed to death from botched abortions while ghouls mock her. “Far from being haunted,” D’Ambrosio explains, Hell House is “a safe refuge from the morally confusing universe out beyond the walls of black plastic … Loyalty—in its darkest form, which left so much death as its legacy to the twentieth century—rids the divided self of anxiety and guilt, so that murder smiles.”
D’Ambrosio is that dangerous breed of writer who observes the world with a precision whose beauty yields a share of pain. At an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia, he finds himself “combing the place for evidence of the tide of children, the softening action of them against the hard surfaces and correct angles favored by the original architects. Doorsills were scooped like shell by scuffling kids, and the jambs, at various heights, had lost their edge as lingering children held them, dirtied them, and picked at them until they had to be repainted, over the years, with many quick coats of high-gloss enamel.”
D’Ambrosio can also be quite funny, usually at his own expense. In the same essay he describes meeting a pushy man traveling to Russia to adopt a child: “His wife seemed kind and sweet and obsequious, with a soft chin that marred her real chance at beauty. Every time I looked at her face I felt lost. She had that bright-eyed very dull niceness well-meaning people often have that strikes you as full of shit until you realize there’s nothing behind it. It’s real. She was nice.”
In “Any Resemblance to Anyone Living,” D’Ambrosio describes the disorienting process of finding himself portrayed, rather too fairly, in the novel of an old paramour. “I’ve chopped up and rearranged a few people myself, making fiction,” he confesses. “My poor motley father’s appeared in my stories as a dead Vietnam vet, pill-addled insurance underwriter, mental patient, deranged mountaineer, and sentimental rapist—all this on top of having to live his regular life ... I can’t help it. Every time my soul goes black I see his big hilarious grin.”
A few of the essays here are literary excavations, filtered through D’Ambrosio’s omnivorous compulsions as a reader. In “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” he offers—in the guise of a close reading of Richard Hugo’s famous poem—a wide-ranging inquiry into the horrors of history. He draws on a chorus of voices: Shakespeare, Shelley, Hawthorne, the critic Theodor Adorno, the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. One of his intentions is to place the attacks of September 2001 into perspective, to dissolve the fog of propagandizing self-regard in which those events have been shrouded.
“Much of the news,” he writes, “as a form of expression, made little sense to me. People were saying our lives would never be the same again, a phrase turning naively around a moment that space, which is heartless, and nature, which is indifferent, would never share. Not even history agrees, and part of what made discussion so difficult was the intrusion of the historical into a romance.” D’Ambrosio seeks refuge, if that’s the right word, in the work of Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz, poets who recognize the folly of dressing the dead in golden robes.
As a witness to human longing and delusion, D’Ambrosio is among our most eloquent voices. Reading Loitering I thought about David Foster Wallace a lot. D’Ambrosio is a different sort of writer: more personal, more openly haunted, preoccupied by the rites of Catholicism. But he shares with Foster Wallace a gift for exactitude, erudition, and moral concern. Both take an obvious delight in language as an instrument of truth—and perhaps more so as a weapon in the war against the American habit of falsehood.
His non-fiction fills, or helps to fill, the void left by Foster Wallace.
Loitering is a tough collection to get through. But it’s also hard to shake. Long after I put it down, I found myself thinking about D’Ambrosio—worrying about him really—a restless orphan prowling the wilds of Montana in winter: “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.”
Hang in there, Charlie. Help is on the way.