Charles D’Ambrosio – The Dead Fish Museum

Books Reviews Charles D'Ambrosio
Charles D’Ambrosio – The Dead Fish Museum

Stories for Millions of Us, Everywhere: The damned and the damaged inherit the earth in this long-anticipated story collection

In “Screenwriter,” from Charles D’Ambrosio’s new collection, the narrator describes a young dancer at the mental institution they share:

A white moth fell like a flower petal from the sky, dropped through a link in the fence, and came to light on my hand. The cooling night wind raised gooseflesh on my arms, and a cloud of smoke ripped into the air. The girl’s gown was smoldering. A leading edge of orange flame was chewing up the hem. I rose from my seat to tell the ballerina she was on fire. The moth flew from my hand, a gust fanned the flames, there was a flash, and the girl ignited, lighting up like a paper lantern. She was cloaked in fire. The heat moved in waves across my face and I had to squint against the brightness. The ballerina spread her arms and levitated, sur le pointes, leaving the patio as her legs, ass, and back emerged phoenix-like out of this paper chrysalis, rising up until finally the gown sloughed from her shoulders and sailed away, a tattered black ghost ascending in a column of smoke and ash, and she lowered back down, naked and white, standing there, pretty much unfazed, in first position.

The terrible beauty of this passage typifies D’Ambrosio’s precision about characters detached from love, sanity or both. In “Drummond and Son,” a typewriter repairman’s wife leaves him with his adult, mentally distant son, who explains that he “laughs when he sees something sad.” Depicting characters with weak grasps on reality allows the author to unstick words from their familiar meanings. He often uses surreal language to depict disconnected, sometimes hallucinatory experiences. In the title story, for example, an emigrant from El Salvador struggles with English, calling his refrigerator “the dead fish museum.” In the typewriter-repairman story, he and his mentally disabled son spend their bus ride home reading pages of random, fragmented and nonsensical symbols customers have typed during the day. One reads, “???????????!!!!!!” The clearest statement offered reads, “God is dead.”

Disconnection from God is one of the central themes, depicted largely by the recurrent images of dead fish. For example, in “The High Divide,” the characters walk away from their camping spot and return to find the fish they caught “all burned to hell.” Significantly, it’s during this hiking trip that the father of the narrator’s friend announces he and his wife are getting a divorce. It turns out there’s little to protect these characters from suffering, since the author suggests their faith in prayer and family is about as useful as faith in Sasquatch, a creature the father calls “a myth.” “The Bone Game” concerns a man, Kype, whose self-appointed mission is to find the perfect spot to scatter his grandfather’s ashes. With his road companion, D’Angelo, he drives the grandfather’s Eldorado to an Indian reservation where a deaf woman tells him white men are fish. And, ultimately, he swims and walks along a stream littered with dead fish.

“Blessing” is a story in which the protagonist’s ne’er-do-well brother receives the gift of a large salmon that washes up on the Skagit River’s flooded banks. This is arguably the most hopeful story, as the river ordinarily offers up tree branches and washing machines when it rises and destroys homes along its banks. The salmon feeds the family and an old neighbor, and they’re able to hold back the river with sandbags, at least until the storm returns and dumps more rain. These are fiercely compassionate stories in which people suffer mentally and spiritually, and one type of suffering is analog to the other; one character will lose his mind while another loses his soul.

Despite the sad state of many of the characters, D’Ambrosio depicts them with humor as often as with poignancy. When Kype and D’Angelo pick up a hitchhiking young woman they tell her of Kype’s grandfather’s importance, his impact on people and his fame. Impressed, the woman drinks from a bottle of whiskey and says, “Here’s to Granpa.” “Here is Granpa,” D’Angelo replies, holding up the urn filled with the old man’s ashes.

Although many of the stories in The Dead Fish Museum were originally published in The New Yorker and elsewhere, this collection is more than welcome after the 10-year wait since The Point, D’Ambrosio’s highly acclaimed first collection. It’s most welcome because of the solace it offers. In “Blessing,” for example, the narrator finds a mysterious note written on a Christmas card in the attic of his newly purchased house. The note reads, “I hope these help. Love Milt.”

One imagines D’Ambrosio offering these beautifully written stories with a comparable intent to suffering readers who need help. At the end of “The High Divide,” orphaned Ignatius, his lonely friend Donny and Donny’s troubled father yell across the river and hear their echoing voices, “like there were millions of us everywhere.”

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