The Dead Fish Museum: Stories, by Charles D’Ambrosio
While most of the writing world is in Portland at #AWP19, myself included, taking in panels, readings, and the bookfair with hundreds of exhibitors of presses small and large, there isn’t much we get to see of Portland, the stunning Pacific Northwest landscape with its majestic Shasta Cascade mountain range, conifer forests, and crisp air. And yet, it’s been on my mind since my arrival, especially in images from a book that was formative in my impressions of the region, Charles D’Ambrosio’s 2006 story collection The Dead Fish Museum. Of the author, and this book, Michael Chabon said, “Charles D’Ambrosio works a rich, deep, dangerous seam in the brokenhearted rock of American Fiction. His characters live lives that burn as dark and radiant as the prose style that conjures them,” and the Los Angeles Times Book Review places D’Ambrosio, at “the top tier of contemporary practitioners of the short story.”
That praise is well deserved. These eight stories are rich and at the same time, austere. A story that keeps coming to mind here in Portland is “The Bone Game,” first published in the New Yorker. As the story opens, Kype, the grandson of a local magnate has lost his way in Portland’s confusion of one way streets, circling Pioneer Square with an urn of his dead grandfather’s ashes on the seat, and a hitchhiker named D’Angelo:
“Kype finally found the street he wanted and steered the car north through Pioneer Square. An Indian sat on the curb with his head in his hands, tying back two slick wings of crow-black hair with a faded blue bandanna. A pair of broken-heeled cowboy boots lay in the gutter while he aired his bare feet. D’Angelo rolled down his window, waved a gun in the air, took a bead, and dry-fired. The hammer struck three times against empty chambers, but in his mind D’Angelo had dropped the Indian, right there on the sidewalk. He raised the barrel to his lips and blew away an imaginary wisp of smoke.
The tone that recurs in this collection, dark certainly, but also wry in the way of the audacious characters whose actions often feel last-ditch. Kype and D’Angelo finally head out to the coast, and on the way pick up a youg Makah woman, Nell Ides, and the three make for Port Angeles. D’Angelo turns on the charm, telling Nell about Kype’s rich grandfather and their plans:
“You may have heard of him. Kype, his name was Kype. Just like this guy. Anyway, me and my friend Kype here, we’re drinking the old man’s bourbon, and we got his old gun, and we’re going to catch the biggest, wildest fish in the ocean with his old fishing pole.”
“Putting the fun back in funeral,” Nell said.
The book is thematically rich with the complex view of outsiders, of the Pacific Northwest’s Native culture and lore, of history, geography, industry, tragedy. In “Drummond and Son,” the younger Drummond runs a typewriter shop he’s inherited, in itself anachronistic, while his own son, Pete, is developmentally disabled. Drummond brings him to shop each now that now his wife has left, and there’s a tone throughout of loss, and of isolation—that comes with Pete’s difference, with the end of a marriage, with fixing beautiful old things that are becoming increasingly obsolete:
“Drummond wore a blue smock and leaned under a bright fluorescent lamp like a jeweller or a dentist, dipping a Q-Tip in solvent and dabbing inked dust off the type heads of an Olivetti Lettera 32. The machine belonged to a writer, a young man, about Pete’s age, who worked next door, at La Bas Books, and was struggling to finish his first novel. The machine was a mess.”
There is “Up North,” a haunting story of a hunting trip, that male trope of nature, power, and bonding, that D’Ambrosio uses to peel back the layers of pain around trust and intimacy in a marriage. In “Screenwriter,” the titular writer confined to a psych ward for attempted suicide, befriends a ballerina he met on the ward. She’s getting better, he’s not: “Departures on the psych ward were a big deal. People always swore they’d come back and visit but they never did. By the time you were a ward veteran like myself a little bit of your hope left with them and never fully returned.” It’s a kind of obsession with her, but also with her healing, which isn’t going as well for him. “Aren’t you exhausted?” she asks him, suggesting that the heart and soul can tire of the weight of grief, and perhaps heal. Or not.
Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of The Point and Orphans, a collection of essays. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space.
Read my appreciation of Charles D’Ambrosio’s essay collection, Orphans, at The Rumpus.