The last book I really truly loved was Charles D’Ambrosio’s second short story collection, The Dead Fish Museum.
I had been looking forward to the release of this book ever since D’Ambrosio’s first collection, The Point, came out in 1995, and even though I had read some of these stories in The New Yorker and The Best American Short Stories in the years prior to its release, I can’t remember ever being so excited to hold a book in my hands. In fact, I even pre-ordered the hardcover of The Dead Fish Museum on Amazon, which is something I almost never do.
So, why do I love this book—and D’Ambrosio’s work, in general—so much? It’s hard for me to pinpoint an exact reason, though I think it has something to with what D’Ambrosio is able to do on the sentence level, the way his sentences sneak up on you, the way he is able to pack so much meaning into every paragraph, every scene. He writes the type of stories that you can return to again and again, because each time there’s something new to discover, some new subtly in the language, some unexpected detail that you may have missed the last time you read it, or sometimes something as simple as a period, or a semi-colon, put in just the right place. In this way, reading a D’Ambrosio story is very much like reading a narrative poem: you enjoy it as much for the experience of being inside it, of listening to it, as you do for the actual story.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about from D’Ambrosio’s short story “The Screenwriter,” a brief description of a woman who the narrator encounters during his stay in a mental ward:
“Her nose was fat and fruitlike, a nose for pratfalls and slapstick, not jetés and pirouettes and pliés and whatnot. But her lips were lovely, the color of cold meat, and her eyes, sunk deep in their sockets, were clear blue. When you looked into them, you half expected to see fish swimming around at the back of her head, shy ones.”
It’s little touches, like the phrase “shy ones” at the end of this description, that make D’Ambrosio’s work so singular and compelling. When my students read this story recently for one of my fiction workshops, I had to explain to them that I could teach them how to do a lot of things, but I couldn’t teach them how to write sentences like that. “Some things are just innate,” I had to explain to them. ”Some things, you know, you’re just kind of born with.”
But then again, maybe it’s not all innate talent. I remember reading in the back of the 2005 O. Henry Awards anthology that D’Ambrosio had taken another one of the stories in this collection, “The High Divide,” through something like 116 drafts, so maybe this luminous, effulgent prose style of his is as much a product of hard work and discipline as it is anything else.
All I know is that these are some of the most beautiful and heartbreaking stories I have ever read. They’re about characters in impossible situations, grappling with difficult choices, forced to confront their own inadequacies while trying to make sense of the world around them, and they’re written with such exquisite precision and emotional clarity, that as soon as you finish the book, I promise you, you’ll want to start over and read it again.