D’Ambrosio has led us into a new sphere of understanding—that of our intimate human connections and what binds us together, all through intelligent narrative, or what he calls “scrappy incondite essays.” The essays here are anything but scrappy—they are a curiosity with a sense of doubt and unknowing at the root of each piece along with an under-layer of irony and despair. — Melissa Matthewson
Loitering: New & Collected Essays
Tin House Books, 2014
368 pages, $15.95
To loiter is to linger aimlessly, to make purposeless stops in a journey to a particular destination. In Charles D’Ambrosio’s new book, Loitering, this is what we do, we linger—on ideas, in places, with people—and though at times the essays lack some sense of purpose or direction, we trust that eventually we will arrive where we are supposed to. And even if we don’t come to a finite ending, even if we find ourselves off the beaten track, it doesn’t matter because D’Ambrosio has led us into a new sphere of understanding—that of our intimate human connections and what binds us together, all through intelligent narrative, or what he calls “scrappy incondite essays.” The essays here are anything but scrappy—they are a curiosity with a sense of doubt and unknowing at the root of each piece along with an under-layer of irony and despair.
Charles D’Ambrosio is best known for his two short story collections, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which won the Washington State Book Award for Fiction in 2007. D’Ambrosio’s fiction has appeared in the New Yorker including such stories as “Screenwriter,” “The High Divide,” and “Drummond & Son.” Some of the essays that appear in the new collection have also appeared in the New Yorker, though under different titles. D’Ambrosio has won many awards for his writing including the Whiting Writers’ Award, a Lannan Foundation fellowship among other prestige.
Overall, D’Ambrosio has created essays that act as containers of promise, as collections of ironies, troubles, joys, and heartache expertly driven by an empathetic and confident narrator all within the context of idiosyncratic subjects. Many of the essays were previously published in Orphans from Clear Cut Press, which sold out of its first print and was never reprinted, along with the addition of six new essays. In this work, D’Ambrosio writes about Seattle, whaling, suicide, Salinger, Richard Brautigan, family, money, Chicago, furniture warehouses, gambling, among other subjects.
D’Ambrosio’s essays are small journeys—episodic, anecdotal, rambling—but, also ruminant and ironic. They are addictive not only for the strength of D’Ambrosio’s humor and insights, but also for the language, syntax, and rhythm of each sentence. Let’s take the title essay “Loitering,” in which D’Ambrosio takes us to Belltown in Seattle lingering as a bystander in a standoff between police and a gunman who has taken hostage his girlfriend. The opening sentence exemplifies how D’Ambrosio decides to portray himself as a narrator for the entire collection to come. “This is totally false, but for the sake of the story let’s say the events in question begin around 2:00 a.m., just because that’s when I show up on the scene.” Here, D’Ambrosio unapologetically lets the reader know that he’s forging details, and in this honesty, he opens the essay up, invites the reader to take part by allowing for trust as he leads us down a narrative path of which the main goal is to illuminate all the tender and banal strands of humanness that thread us together.
The essay meanders, not necessarily in terms of physical space, but intellectually as we hear from D’Ambrosio about Alaska (“I came back from salmon fishing in Alaska”) to his bed where he has been recovering from atopic dermatitis (“Half the reason I’m at the crime scene is I haven’t had any human contact for awhile”) to our shared histories and uniqueness (“I suppose it could also be said we’re known to the extent that we’re dull and orbital about our life, that what’s quotidian about us is more easily shared than the exuberances and passions that push us out of the predictable.”) As any essay should do, the incident is a bouncing point for exploring how we portray ourselves to each other—through “what’s dullest and worst about ourselves.” He does this by using the characters, strangers, vagrants he encounters on the scene to take him into these insights as well as interjecting with “preambular” thoughts from himself. In another meta-technique, D’Ambrosio reports from the scene, but humorously admits he’s not a journalist, but ironically, he is reporting, thus creating a dramatic structure for the essay, making himself into another character on the scene and pushing against typical journalistic tendencies.
My main problem vis-a-vis journalism is I just don’t have an instinct for what’s important…My first note was about the old alleys in Seattle, those island places where sticker bushes flourish and a man can still sleep on a patch of bare earth, where paths are worn like game trails and leave a trace of people’s passing, and how these naturally surviving spots are systematically vanishing from the city, rooted up and paved over mostly because they house bums—an act of eradication that seems as emotionally mingy as putting pay slots on public toilets, but is probably cost-effective in terms of maintenance, since bums generate a lot of garbage in the form of broken glass and wet cardboard…Also my notes bleed black ink and blur in the rain as I write them. I don’t write a note about that.
The most enjoyable part of reading D’Ambrosio’s essays are his rhythmic, long sentences. He references this in his preface even: “I relied on my ear to a ridiculous extent, trusting that if I got the sound right—the music, the mood, the feel of things—then sense might eventually make an appearance.” For example, in the same title essay “Loitering,” D’Ambrosio has boarded a Metro bus in Seattle for people who have been evacuated or flushed from crime scenes in order to keep warm on a cold night. D’Ambrosio admits that “everybody in there’s fucked up in some heavy way.” He goes on,
They’ve been ripped out of their bedrooms and are dressed mostly in nightwear, which is something to see—not because I have any fashion ideas or big thesis about nighties and pj’s, but rather because, this surreal dawn, the harsh, isolated privacy of these people is literally being paraded in public. The falling rain, the bus going nowhere, the wrecked-up passengers dressed for sleep, the man with the gun—these are the wild and disparate components of a dream, and I haven’t slept, and it’s just weird.
In this first sentence, D’Ambrosio begins with the description of the vagrants, and admits it is an occasion to take notice, but it’s the light of day that makes the people vulnerable and that’s the significant part of this sentence. D’Ambrosio uses an interjection half-way through the sentence to set off the real thought he’s searching for. In the next sentence, he uses a list of details to create rhythm set off by an em dash which creates the next beat of the sentence with his understanding of these details and his thoughts on such a thing.
D’Ambrosio’s essays are successful also for the way he provides commentary on ordinary subjects that at the same time illuminate some other human despair or failing. In another essay toward the middle of the book titled “American Newness” D’Ambrosio visits a facility where various manufactured homes are on display. As D’Ambrosio considers the way manufactured homes are imitations of the authentic home, he tell us, “It’s that inserted layer of sincerity that rings false. It’s evilly unAmerican to say aloud, but real divisions exist between people, and the houses themselves try hard, desperately hard, to obscure those difference.” D’Ambrosio tries hard to get on board with the manufactured homes, but can’t seem to see pass the imitation. “…I was just walking around in the factory faking my enthusiasm and hiding a creepy low-grade horror. Normally I don’t like my meaning ready-made, but by the time I headed out to my truck I was in total despair.” As he continues on his tour, he finds the loneliness in the homes, and the people who live there when he visits a local bar and names the local characters singing karaoke where “Divorce and treachery and betrayal were in the air but so was desire…” Finally, he visits one home where the fake pictures of families jettison him into total despair for the kind of life that’s being created. “Who are these blonde women with unfading smiles? Whose bright kids are these? What happy family is this? In the kitchen two ice cream sundaes sit on the counter. Those sundaes will never melt, nor will they be eaten.”
In Loitering, D’Ambrosio gives us “the soulful texture, the nap of personality” of places, people, and life all over the world through poignant essays that are impressive and complex in their enduring value. Loitering is one of those books where each sentence is a tonal and syntactical adventure, where every page contains a new surprise—you’re never sure what you’re going to get, though indisputably, you know it’s going to be good.
Melissa Matthewson lives in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. She holds degrees in Environmental Studies from UC Santa Cruz (BA) and the University of Montana (MS). She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is an Assistant Essays Editor at the The Rumpus. Her essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Bellingham Review, River Teeth, Defunct, Pithead Chapel, Numéro Cinq, Under the Gum Tree, and Terrain.org among others.
What an interesting review, Melissa. I throughly enjoyed reading about this. Impressive and complex, indeed.