The Dead Fish Museum

Charles D’Ambrosio is not yet a household name. His first book is now out of print, and his second, a wonderful collection of essays entitled Orphans, had a very limited distribution. But his stories have been appearing steadily in the New Yorker and other major venues, and his work is held in high esteem by fellow writers. His newest collection of stories seems likely to confirm his standing as an important fiction writer of his generation.

D’Ambrosio’s skillful prose is notable not only for its beauty, but also for its distinctive mixture of straightforward psychological realism and gothic, dream-like imagery. On the surface, the stories have all the grit and rue of a good Tobias Wolff or Richard Ford story—estranged fathers and sons, unfaithful wives, depressed carpenters, boys going camping. But there is also a flutter at the edge of the frame, a hint of the phantasmagoric seen from the corner of the eye.

In the story “The Scheme of Things,” Lance and Kirsten are cruising through a series of Midwestern towns, going door-to-door collecting money for a charity called BAD, Babies Addicted to Drugs, which, of course, is just a con game, a way for them to scam enough money to buy drugs of their own. The story proceeds for a time with this premise, but then it slowly turns. We realize that it is Halloween, and we begin to learn more about Kirsten, who “had died once, and had made the mistake, before she understood how superstitious he was, of telling Lance about it. Her heart had stopped and she had drifted toward a white light that rose away from her like a windblown sheet …” Shortly, as she is canvassing a neighborhood, Kirsten finds herself at the edge of a cornfield, where she encounters a strange little girl in costume, dressed in “calico frock and dirty pink pumps … A rim of red lipstick distorted the girl’s mouth grotesquely, and blue moons of eyeshadow gave her face an unseeing vagueness.” Then, after a brief conversation, the girl runs off through the rows of corn: “Instantly, she was nowhere and everywhere. In every direction the stalks swayed and the dry leaves turned as if the little girl, passing by, had just brushed against them.”

Is she a ghost? Is she real? We’re not certain, and this is one of the effects that D’Ambrosio does really well. His stories take place in a variety of vividly drawn naturalistic settings—from New York to rural Michigan. But at another level they all seem to take place in D’Ambrosioland, a kind of haunted dream world in which the characters are lost. There are ghosts, ballerinas on fire, and mystical bone rituals. Many of the stories deal with mental illness and extreme emotional states, and the texture of the fictional world distorts along with the heightened feeling.

The emotional intensity of the stories is frequently startling; all are marked by a vein of uncomfortably depthless sadness. Perhaps this is the element that makes D’Ambrosio’s work so memorable. It is rare to encounter work that is this controlled, and yet, conversely, cuts so deeply. These are the kinds of stories that linger with readers long after they have closed the book.

Dan Chaon, an award-winning fiction writer, is the Houck Associate Professor of Humanities at Oberlin, where he teaches creative writing.

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