The stories in Charles D’Ambrosio’s new collection, The Dead Fish Museum, often take place on the roads, in the campsites, or in the motels of the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. They also frequently occur in places where things aren’t right psychologically—difficult places in difficult lives, where the situations are serious, even grave.
In “Up North,” a young husband goes hunting with his father-in-law and a couple of his father-in-law’s friends, one of whom, we don’t know who, raped his wife when she was a teenager. “She wouldn’t talk about it, except to say that the truth would kill her father.” In “The High Divide,” a boy finds himself living in a Catholic orphanage because his father has gone mad after a car accident in which his mother died; he is invited on a camping trip by a pudgy friend named Donald whose own father is about to lower an emotional boom: “Donald, Mr. Cheetam said, don’t be stupid. We’re divorcing, your mom and I.” And in the title story, a vagrant carpenter with a gun in his tool bag signs up as a crew member on a porn film. “Buried at the bottom of the sack… was the gun that he had believed, for the past year, would kill him. The gun was his constant adversary, like a drug, a deep secret that he kept from others, but it was also his passion….”
But there are subtler situations, too. The story “Blessing,” for example, is about a New York couple that recently moved to an old house in a remote part of Washington State; the small family reunion they host there is off-kilter in a way that might seem more sadly familiar.
D’Ambrosio’s characters speak plain, earthy dialogue. “Right now,” says a hunter in “Up North,” explaining his turkey-call technique, “I’m telling him there’s a chance for poon out here.” But the prose around this dialogue is deliberate and full, often formal. And unfortunately, what felt like an almost pious approach to the construction of these stories often had the effect of pulling me out rather than pulling me in.
In “The Scheme of Things,” for example, the high- altitude, third-person narration can seem utterly at odds with the story’s lowlife main characters, a pair of drug-addicted con-artist drifters: “He believed that a rich and deserved life ran parallel to theirs, a life that she alone could see, and he would probe her dreams for directions and tease her premonitions for meanings, as if her nightmares and moods gave her access to a world of utter certainty, when in fact Kirsten knew the truth—that every dream was a reservoir of doubt.” This kind of moment gave me the feeling, on one hand, that D’Ambrosio was trying to create big, lasting fictions, to connect to a longer, larger tradition than most contemporary story writers attempt to do. On the other hand, I worried that they were written for readers who are less jaded than I evidently am.
But the ability and the pure and good intent of the writer are hard to ignore, and his narratives, paced to let the details build emotional weight, urge you for- ward. These are stories that dare to be great, and there is greatness in them. And so despite certain misgivings, you press on with D’Ambrosio through whatever it may be, usually a kind of heartbreak or damage that’s hard to live with but can’t ever be undone. In the end I found that when you do that, suspend your cynical self, the heartbreak can attach itself to you as well. The ability of these stories to stick with you, I think, is the measure of their success.