A used copy of Orphans, the book of essays by Charles D’Ambrosio published by Tin House Press in 2005, currently sells on Amazon for around $150. That’s because the physically tiny book, about 6 inches tall and almost as wide, has become something of a Holy Grail for that group of people who decide upon whom to bestow the title of “writer’s writer.”
In fact, while I was reading my advanced review copy of Loitering, the new edition that reprints the essays of Orphans along with significant additional work, on New York City’s infamously literary L train, I was accosted by a writerly stranger who demanded how I got my hands on it. Sadly, his copy was still on preorder.
D’Ambrosio’s work — which includes the short story collections The Point and The Dead Fish Museum — is popular with writers largely because as a group they tend to skew toward admiring work that is the ineffably sad. Much of D’Ambrosio’s energy in this collection is expended in understanding his own sadness and trying to find the right words to describe it as it besets him during the various odd journalistic phenomena which he has been sent out to document, including a religiously-moralizing haunted house, the sentencing of Mary Kay Letourneau and a long-distance field piece on a ramshackle orphanage in Russia that gave the first collection his title.
Here he is describing the demeanor of the children that he encountered there: “One little thing I saw over and over again filled me with a low-grade despair and a lingering, elusive sadness I could never quite identify. Even now I can approach it roundaboutly.”
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That low-grade despair is evident in all of these essays. D’Ambrosio’s writing is haunted by many ghosts, included that of his classically distant father, one of his brothers who committed suicide and another brother who attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge but managed to drag his broken body to shore. He also one of America’s best writers of the Pacific Northwest, and how the dreary climes have informed his work is easy to see.
D’Ambrosio is simply one of the best crafters of an English sentence alive today. His blackly beautiful observations, wrought with impressive intelligence, give the reader clues with which to simultaneously understand the cavernous interiors of his own mind and soul.
The critic is tempted to simply excerpt rather than expound, as every page has a sentence worth mentioning, but here is a sampling. On the aforementioned haunted house, he writes: “All of this was meant to be hideous and repellant, yet each room offered such a long, prurient, gazing look into the life of degradation that the scenarios often seemed like a spastic reaction against a real desire, a fascination.”
Here he is describing the men who drank in the Chicago bar adjacent to the warehouse where he at one point worked and lived: “The bar was the kind of place where people were ‘characters’ and were known, to the extent that they were known at all, by some fragment of personality, a piece of self broken off and magnified until it was more recognizable that the original man behind it, overshadowing him.”
And here he is in operating another mode entirely, dissecting a poem by Richard Hugo: “I don’t want to bog down in the exegetical rigging of real criticism, the cumbersome quoting, the whole vast tackle of arcane and specialized language that takes poetry further towards silence.”
Silence is D’Ambrosio’s arch-enemy; the silence of an undocumented tragedy or an uncommunicated pain. To read the essays in Loitering is to yell down into the silent spaces of your life, roost the bats from the walls, and find a name for that which had gone unnamed.
Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.