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The Dead Fish MuseumReview - The Dead Fish Museum
Stories
by Charles D'Ambrosio
Knopf, 2006
Review by Tony O'Brien
Apr 18th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 16)

The Dead Fish Museum is Charles D'Ambrosio's second collection of short stories, the first (The Point) having been published in 1995. That's a long time between drinks for a writer of D'Ambrosio's quality. Those who enjoyed The Point will be eager to indulge themselves anew in the richness of D'Ambrosio's prose, the magical twists of language, and the deeply evoked characters and landscapes. Several of these stories have been published in the New Yorker whose website every short story reader should bookmark for the weekly offering of outstanding fiction. One story, The Scheme of Things was included in this year's Best American Short Stories edited by Michael Chabon. Chabon's enthusiasm for D'Ambrosio's work is such that he declares of The Dead Fish Museum that 'No one today writes better short stories than these'. That's an assessment that's hard to argue with.

The Dead Fish Museum contains just eight stores, all acutely observed slices of life. The main characters are mainly men and boys; D'Ambrosio is able to capture the inner life of abandoned children, broken hearted lovers, men whose last strands of hope are frayed and tenuous, but who have some inner quality that keep them going. The stories have a compelling sense of place, whether a dusty cornfield or an Indian reservation. And they have a strong narrative drive, not through convenient plot devices, but through a deft combination of character and circumstance that sets each story in motion and impels it forward. If that's not enough D'Ambrosio is a master of language; there are memorable sentences on every page; images that are both haunting and powerful.

In The High Divide a boy from an orphanage develops a friendship with Donny, an overweight and insecure misfit, then sees Donny's hero worship of his idealized father dissolve. The loss of his own father to brain damage and institionalization provides both narrator and reader an insight into Donny's despair. Drummond and Son follows the entwined lives of typewriter repairer and his mentally ill son. The warmth and compassion of this story make it moving and memorable. Pete is disabled by his illness, and unable to respond emotionally to his patient and accepting father, Drummond. Drummond coaxes and cajoles, but never gives in to despair. Up North is a scary story of lies and deception. Put a niggling group of relatives and friends in a remote hunting cabin, provide them with dark secrets and a gun, add alcohol, and something has to give. D'Ambrosio sustains the tension of this story to the last, and in the process shows both the humanity and the weaknesses of the characters. Tension is something that D'Ambrosio does well. In the title story the protagonist is a builder of film props, just released from a psychiatric facility. He has a gun, but each of the characters has a reason to fire it.

Picking a standout story is a subjective process, but for me it was The Scheme of Things. I had come across this story before, in The Best American Short Stories, but on re-reading the story lost nothing of its poignancy and pathos. Lance and Kirsten are a pair of juvenile escapees, scraping an existence through an ironic scam that plays on people's sympathies for the children of drug users. The story is set in Iowa, and you can almost smell the dust of the cornfields at harvest. Lance and Kirsten are befriended by an elderly couple with a buried grief of their own, and the couple's generosity awakens moral sympathies in Kirsten that had been all but snuffed out by her troubled childhood. By contrast Lance remains locked into a selfish, scheming world. As D'Ambrosio tells it, these are not 'delinquents' or some other category of person that is fundamentally different from ourselves. They are somebody's kids. They could be our neighbour's, our friends'; they could be ours.

Running through the collection is D'Ambrosia's inventive and imaginative use of language. The stories are worth reading for this feature alone. Lance (The Scheme of Things) is described as 'bullying the truth, hating its disadvantages'; Tony and Meghan's house in Blessing was 'so weatherbeaten in places, yet so new and marvelously current in others, that it would have been hard for an outsider to guess whether it was an old house that was falling apart or a new house with many sly touches of distressed authenticity'. D'Ambrosia can describe a dying salmon as if it were a work of art. He captures both details and impressions with a clarity and vividness that allows the reader access to unseen worlds. And yet there is a strong sense of familiarity in these stories, so that even situations that are unique to the various corners of America are recognizable. D'Ambrosia is not content to provide general descriptions where sharp detail, and the language necessary to convey it, will do a better job. Drummond and Son shows readers the craft of typewriter repair up close and it's like you're tweaking the keys with needle-nosed pliers, just enough to prevent the divots that pock the platen. In The Bone Game a fisherman doesn't merely assemble his rod, he slides the ferrules together. These are not irrelevant details cunningly snuck into the text to show D'Ambrosia's knowledge of such things. They reflect the involvement of the characters in what they are doing, and so allow the reader to feel that even small things matter.

The only weakness in this collection is in 'Screenwriter'. The film industry features in a number of d'Ambrosio's stories, and 'Screenwriter' follows a period in the life of a successful Hollywood writer who has fallen into depression and is in hospital. It's a marvelous story in most respects, one that any writer would be justifiably pleased with. And yet there is something about it that for me was a little forced. The story is set in a psychiatric facility alternately referred to as 'p-ward' or 'p-hospital'. When the narrator discloses his long standing thoughts about suicide he is assigned a minder who stalks him, policing his every move. He falls in love with a ballerina who soothes herself with cigarette burns.

A lot of the narrative of this story focuses on critical moments in the lives of the characters. They live in a permanent state of crisis. When the narrator seeks the solitude of his bed he can hear the voices of other patients on the telephone outside his room, reciting a litany of tedious complaints about ruined childhoods, threats of self harm, ruminations about methods of suicide. The patients talk exclusively in terms that enhance the sense of 'p-ward' as a seething refuge of desperation, but there is no sense of the mundane preoccupations of people with mental illness: more money for cigarettes, visiting privileges, how the kids are doing at school. D'Ambrosio describes matchmaking in p-ward as 'a pharmacological matter….something you would want to consult the DSM-IV about.' This seems a bit too much of an inside reference, and in any case the DSM offers no pharmacological guidance. The characters that stayed with me from this story were not the screenwriter or the suicidal ballerina, but the ballerina's grandparents, splendidly and sparingly evoked by reference to their 'past tense faces', the grandmother's 'knuckle-like face'. These two appear fleetingly, but they best meet Pritchett's description of the short story as 'something glimpsed from the corner of an eye, in passing'.

This is a simply superb collection. The stories are powerful and memorable with that unique characteristic of good short fiction that the story has been told, but continues to resonate in the reader's mind. D'Ambrosio has won several awards for his previous collection, and although he is reported to be diffident about such things, The Dead Fish Museum is highly to see him again amongst the nominations.

 

© 2006 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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