Review by Gary Sheppard
In Loitering: New & Collected Essays, Charles D’Ambrosio’s first book in eight years, we encounter the same masterly attentiveness to the complexities of language and memory that many readers and writers, too long in the know about this guy, have come to expect from D’Ambrosio’s probably more well known short fiction. A professor of Fiction at The Iowa Writer’s Workshop, D’Ambrosio searches through remembrances of his personal histories, sometimes with rough-edged confusion and sometimes with the clarity of a dogged realist, but never with a moral in mind to leave with the reader.
A number of the essays in this collection are updated and re-titled versions of works from D’Ambrosio’s now out-of-print, but much lauded and highly sought-after collection of essays published nearly a decade ago entitled Orphans. One thing readers of Orphans will remember from those earlier essays and no doubt welcome in the ones is D’Ambrosio’s determined lack of story structure. You can see it in the title of this new collection. These seventeen essays (eighteen if you count the oddly pleasurable preface) meander. They take up great big ideas like family, brotherhood, suicide, and reality itself as subjects. They don’t presume to provide you with a tightly packaged essay form that digs directly to the heart of something merely by dint of the author’s own hardheadedness. We get something palpably more compassionate than that. By lurking around the varied surfaces of whatever subject he’s writing toward, D’Ambrosio is able to escape the terrible hegemony inherent in such grand purposes. Instead we enjoy the battered yet heart-full, thoroughly American voice of a late twentieth century man trying to understand himself in the new century.
But this is not to say these essays are apart from Art somehow. They are erudite ruminations that take long ganders into the nation’s dark expanses, psychologically and geographically. Here D’Ambrosio feels equally at home (not comfortably though, more so in the guilt-tinged way of the prodigal upon his return) discussing the gloom and haze of his native Pacific Northwest as he does his own family’s troubles with suicide and broken forms of communication. The essays however, for the reader not already familiar with D’Ambrosio’s writing, take a moment to access. But this has nothing to do with their erudition. It’s an issue of style. The intensity of the language, accompanied by the writer’s perfection of pitch and accuracy of diction, demands slow, empathetic reading, which of course does not go unrewarded.
Though D’Ambrosio’s subjects vary – a Russian orphanage, whaling, Richard Brautigan, a Pentecostal “hell house” – he maintains throughout this collection a singularity of voice and a clear-headed questioning of his own emotional responses to such stimuli. The most instructive of these comes in the essay “Documents”, wherein the author positions his own emotional responses against the painful honesty of letters he received from his father and brothers regarding the D’Ambrosio family’s apparent tragic history with suicide. D’Ambrosio comes to no solid conclusions; he only wants to explore the complexity and apparent lack of consolation that comes from feeling such dark emotions, which is ultimately consoling.
A welcome surprise comes in the collection’s final section, wherein we encounter a bundle of short essays on the “Reading Life”. Normally, this is the section of a book of essays you can safely skim through to no great consequence. However, D’Ambrosio’s thoughts on the usefulness of writers like Salinger and Richard Brautigan and Milosz and Richard Hugo all work toward a common theme of recovery (recovery from obscurity, recovery from misinterpretation and misunderstanding). This sense of recovery is somewhat necessary at the end of a book that is otherwise relentlessly searching of the darkest proclivities of our human nature, working ultimately to deliver on one of Literature’s old promises: instruction. This fine ability of D’Ambrosio’s is the real triumph of the book and what makes it worth spending your time and money on. Whether he is attempting to reclaim Salinger for an adult audience or trying to understand the what’s really behind the family’s secrets, it is always clear that Charles D’Ambrosio does so in a spirit of generosity compassion.