Charles D'Ambrosio has no novels to his name, no film adaptations, and no epic pseudo-memoirs with egregious titles. All he publishes is short fiction and short nonfiction, and slowly at that—two story collections and an essay collection over 10 years. He is a writer's writer, a man who has climbed to the upper echelon of American letters with nothing but his perfectly honed prose to guide him. Six of the eight stories in his new collection, The Dead Fish Museum, were previously published in The New Yorker, and the magazine printed a seventh, "The Bone Game," in February. That's impressive.
D'Ambrosio has described his own writing as "plotless," but plot is a whole different beast from story. Yes, D'Ambrosio's characters lead plotless lives, but their stories are as vibrant as anything you'll ever read. Ramage, the protagonist of the collection's title story, is a depressed carpenter who works on the sets of porn movies. The empty lives of the people in his profession—from his vapid, volatile hired hand to the fake-boobed has-been starlet—mirror the emptiness of his own life.
The people in Dead Fish are sad, but not quite lost. They're too self-aware to be completely unhinged, but their inability to act on that awareness is heartbreaking. In "Up North," a New York insurance worker's angst over his wife's rampant infidelity comes to a head while visiting with her family in the woods. "She had never been a faithful lover," he tells us, with breathtaking clarity, "either before or after our marriage; she preferred sex with strangers, which I could never be, not again... And yet she continued to need the scrim of familiarity I offered, so that the world would fill more sharply with the unfamiliar."
Such openness pops up everywhere in Dead Fish. The writing is beautiful, but not dazzling; unaffected, but not detached. D'Ambrosio sees a moment, an interaction, a place, and describes it with the clearest, most evocative language imaginable. His exquisite plainness is almost hopelessly refreshing—a tender, conversational intimacy that warms even the darkest tale.