Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles D’Ambrosio. $15.95, 368 pp. Tin House.
Look, let’s just get the customer service aspect of this review out of the way first thing: Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles D’Ambrosio is worth your time and book-buying dollars. It’s D’Ambrosio’s fourth book and second essay collection, and, like everything else he’s published, it’s sensitively perceived and astonishingly well written, and the biggest complaint one can make is that there’s not a new collection of his writing to buy on an annual basis.
All that being said, at first glance it does seem slightly strange for a deservedly praised mid-career writer to have a collection of new and collected essays out. That “collected” seems puzzling; isn’t that designation reserved for culminating careers, not gently flourishing ones? Isn’t that a signal of an editorial re-shuffling of golden oldies rather than something freshly bound? But it turns out this second collection of nonfiction has an intriguing backstory.
Though Loitering is D’Ambrosio’s second essay collection, it contains the contents of the first. That first book, Orphans, was a small-format edition published by Clear Cut Press back in the late ’90s as part of a small press subscription plan. It was a neat idea but it never caught on, and the press imploded, making that book a cult object—a rare bootleg traded below knowing head nods. This collection republishes the 11 essays from Orphans, as well as six new ones. And after buying the book, we should all buy Tin House a round of drinks because D’Ambrosio deserves to be republished again and again. He deserves to be pressed into as many tote bags as possible.
The essays are split into three sections. The first two “West of the West” and “Strategies Against Extinction” are from Orphans. The last section, “Reading Life,” is new and contains autobiographically infused literary criticism. On an essay-by-essay basis, the collection is a bit uneven (how could it not be?) but the effect is one of being delightfully rumpled.
In particular, if you’re a paragraph underliner, just go ahead and sharpen your pencils. D’Ambrosio has some kind of mutant X-ray lyricism. Many of the skills he brings to his stories show up here: his sensitivity to language, his feeling for scene, his collecting of absurd shards of dialogue. Even when he rambles, like in the essay “Whaling,” you want to hike along and carry his baggage. The best, like the essay “Documents,” swoop and swirl between scenes and letters to and from various family members, forming an autopsy on family tragedy and denial. Even the more analytical pieces of literary criticism possess kernels of personal experience and move in structurally interesting ways. His essay “Salinger and Sobs” is hands-down the best criticism I’ve ever read on that writer, bringing a perspective unstained by the decades of knowing condescension accumulated by journalists. He actually takes Salinger seriously as a writer, dealing with the shell shock of a suicide within a family, a topic D’Ambrosio brings personal gravity to, and you forget all the hermit hunting that haunts his reputation and want to go reread the actual books.
D’Ambrosio’s also got a great feel for nature and geography, a Jim Harrison–like dog’s-nose-to-the-ground, but with a better prose style. His sentences flash by with fine bits of chromium detail (e.g., “healthy green cordite leaves circled the room airily overhead, like a string of unripe hearts”) but just as often drag linguistic history invisibly behind them. He spends one essay (“One More Paradise”) ironizing the lingo of an attempted eco-village utopia with his own overdriven eloquence, creating a jargon in parallel. But more than that, D’Ambrosio excels at old-fashioned mastery of paragraph construction. This, about his father, is from “Documents”:
He’d sent my sister a letter smeared with his blood. He’d tried to sell his mentally ill son a cemetery plot. He’d shown up at several of my readings wearing a Chicago Cubs hat dangling with fishing lures, a crown of thorns fashioned from spinners and spoons and treble-hooked crank baits, and then he’d just stand there, thirty feet away, staring and saying nothing while I signed books, in a grotesque martyrdom that I somehow understood.
And here he is later in the same essay, describing his walks around Philipsburg, Montana, where he’d bring home bones:
Some nights, I dug into the lee of a snowdrift and hollowed a shelter for myself. Snow contains air and insulates, holding the body’s warmth so that, at a certain point, the temperature remains constant, blood and ice in equilibrium. In deep snow, I dragged supplies with a pulk I’d made from a child’s sled and plastic conduit. I was afraid of avalanches and checked a slope meter before traversing open, treeless hillsides. What I feared was suffocation, particularly the inability to make my chest expand. I really knew nothing about winter, nothing about surviving the season beyond the blunt lesson in fatality I’d learned from picking up bones. Sometimes I slept in the open mouths of mine shafts, their crumbled headframes like broken teeth, where twice I found clusters of bats, hanging by their feet, their wings folded in, like the strange fruits of darkness itself.
The last essay, “Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg,” is based on the poem of the same name by Richard Hugo. It’s the longest and most ambitious of the essays in the book, mixing literary criticism, memoir, 9/11, the metaphysics of punctuation, and more. It meanders a little too much and doesn’t quite pack the emotional punch of his best essays, but it’s still riveting in its own way. D’Ambrosio seems to be most at home when creating scenes or pushing along little floes of narrative. His writing is comparatively less interesting when it shifts to analysis. When he needs to do some expository work, you can feel him step on the eloquence accelerator. But it’s still an awfully nice ride.
The consistent thread through all the essays is, of course, the authorial persona of D’Ambrosio himself, which comes across as brazenly genuine, a constructed artlessness. His essayistic persona seems exist as having no persona at all, to be completely open and unprotected by irony or schtick or any kind of rhetorical shielding. This makes him vastly different from other contemporary male essayists, be they David Sedaris or David Foster Wallace or John Jeremiah Sullivan, who each deploy various distancing techniques to wink at the reader or to place themselves as characters within their stories. D’Ambrosio’s method is both frightening and appealing. He isn’t there jockeying for our approval at the end of every paragraph. He’s a gentler presence, less the bullshitter—just a great, attaching, almost invisible film of attention and sympathy for whatever comes into his purview, the essayist as exuberant cling wrap.
The consequence of this is that you begin to worry about D’Ambrosio the character. I like to keep my authors’ personal lives at arm’s length, out of respect more than anything, but D’Ambrosio’s life keeps popping up: his family’s trauma (one brother a suicide, another a schizophrenic attempted suicide, a father who seemingly goes crazy), and his own morbid, shaky grip on everyday life (there are mentions of mood stabilizers and being supported by family members). The book as a whole begins to seem like a shattered memoir; there’s almost enough autobiographical detail to piece together a complete picture. But not quite: we don’t know, for instance, if D’Ambrosio’s fallen father is still alive, or exactly how well D’Ambrosio has dealt with (is dealing with?) his family’s history, which has occurred just outside the margins of the book. By the end, you emerge feeling for him deeply but also just kind of worried about him in a way that borders on sympathy, which feels insulting at the same time. One doesn’t want to condescend to him in that way. He doesn’t ask for, nor does he particularly need, the reader’s sympathy. It’s generated by the hugely magnanimous spirit of his prose rather than some exhibitionistic gesture on his part. It’s a casualty of how well he’s written these essays.
Finally, the last feeling that reading D’Ambrosio’s new work leaves you with is a fan’s greediness for more. For me personally, he fits into a contemporary pantheon of writers who don’t publish that often, for whatever reason, but whose each new book is bought instantly, read immediately, and leaves me with a type of gnawing withdrawal. I’ve had this feeling reading David Gates, Robert Hass, Lorrie Moore. You will have your own list, possibly. Perhaps the infrequency is necessary to do what they do. If they were to publish more often, their stories and essays wouldn’t contain the nutritional density they seem to possess, so it’s a trade off. Reading an author like D’Ambrosio is like discovering a previously unknown natural resource. One wants to protect it while telling the world about it. Of course these are mutually exclusive desires. Either way: welcome to the cult.
Contributing editor Barrett Hathcock is the author of The Portable Son, a collection of stories. He lives in Jackson, Mississippi.
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