Dan James

Charles D'Ambrosio's short stories are loaded. They're loaded with pills, guns, nuns, crazies, breasts, music, and wildlife, to say nothing of porn stars, repairmen, and pyromaniacs. You find these things outside of books, especially on the West Coast, but what you don't find anywhere else are D'Ambrosio's sentences—immoderate, terrifying little masterpieces, loads of them, on page after page. Jonathan Lethem writes his whole review about two of these sentences. Gary Lutz compares D'Ambrosio's sentences to fires. Books of stories are hard to review—in this story, and in that story, and then in this other story over here, etc.—so we're breaking the book apart and reviewing the stories in The Dead Fish Museum individually, in the order they appear.

—Christopher Frizzelle, Books Editor

"The High Divide"

The dramatic irony of a child's point of view is a pretty good metaphor for the distance between fiction's aestheticized version of the world and the infinitely more complex accumulations of real life. At the epiphanic moment when the protagonist figures out things aren't as simple as he'd previously believed, we too realize life was never that simple: not as monochromatic as a child's conception, nor as ordered as fiction's. This is sentimental, but also irresistible. A thousand times we can have that truth affirmed for us; a thousand times we're comforted by it.

In this regard, "The High Divide" is quintessential writing about children. Innocence is a Catholic orphanage, with all its provisional certainties (for example: the narrator isn't an orphan—Mom's dead, but Dad's just nuts) and mispronounced words ("spatula" for "scapular"); experience involves nudity (i.e., hair on the balls) and overheard conversations that add real meaning to words like "divorce." Combine this with the fact that the story exists in a weirdly atemporal universe—it could take place any time between World War II and today—and you've got God, sex, death, and existential and epistemological anxiety in 19 taut, remarkably neutral pages that end up more or less exactly where you'd expect.

Imagine Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O'Connor holding hands as they walk down a dusty country road, animist and Christian both hedging their bets by conflating faith in God with mental illness, and you've got a pretty good idea of this story's ethos. What would God say to that? He'd probably pass the buck to one of his writers. O'Connor, ever the bossy boots, would probably respond that no one should be surprised by how bad things are. Hemingway would be mad she spoke first, but sadness would mute his anger, because nothing has changed since his day. As for D'Ambrosio, well, he can tie it all together with some of the prettiest metaphorical bows around: "A fish! I saw a fish! And he got his fishing pole and caught a rainbow, like pulling a prayer from the water." That doesn't actually mean anything, of course. But we want it to. And that's enough, for the beginning of a book. DALE PECK

"Drummond & Son"

"Drummond & Son" is a minor story in The Dead Fish Museum, written in a minor key, a quiet, brown interlude placed among more brilliantly chaotic stories like "Screenwriter" and "The Scheme of Things." It reads like one of those stories turned inside out, in fact. Elsewhere in the book there are secondary characters whose modest and kind industry sits in contrast to the dissolute rambling of the main characters, but in "Drummond," such a character—Drummond himself, a relic in a snap-brim hat who keeps a typewriter shop in Belltown well into the laptop age while caring patiently for his childlike grown son—steps to the front of the stage.

Drummond is in no way vivid, and the central image of his obsolete machines is stiff and literal. His hemmed-in story is the one in the book you're most likely to forget. But because of that restraint, you are likely to be pierced, memorably, by the last two lines he speaks in the story, which describe only the most basic facts about his son and their relationship and which are among the saddest in a wonderfully sad book. TOM NISSLEY

"Screenwriter"

"With her malady, the ballerina wasn't really into fooling around, but I hoped her new medication, Manerix, which was supposed to dampen some of her desire to burn herself, might also lead by inverse ratio to an upsurge in her passion for old-fashioned sex." The sentence itself starts out old-fashioned, "malady" confessing the narrator's sentimentality and "lady" doing double-duty to echo "ballerina." Then "into fooling around" turns both jocular and abject—into the story's psych-ward milieu, it introduces a seedy frat boy. This story features cascades of pharmaceutical proper nouns; the one it picks to frame as central, "Manerix," impeaches the narrator's curlicued style of denial as mannerist while also saddling the ballerina-lady with a Man. The ebbing, faintly lush "supposed/dampen some/desire" runs poetical hopefulness up against the shock cut of "burn" but "herself" halfway restores the bogus lyricism, at least as far as the ear's concerned. Then "inverse ratio/upsurge" admits a scientific-cum-business-culture bottom line in the narrator's calculations, incompletely repaired by "passion"—especially as "old-fashioned sex" turns smirkily to the language of a hotel room-service menu (old-fashioned double chocolate malted?). Everything in this sentence predicts the speaker's grievous inadequacy to the challenge his cutter-ballerina will soon present: "I'm a screenwriter and my movies gross millions and when I write 'THE CAR BLOWS UP' there's a pretty good chance a real car will indeed blow up, but I wasn't particularly keen on the idea of roasting this woman's cunt over a hot coal." The problem, though he doesn't know it, isn't whether he's "keen" but whether he'd ever know the difference between a real car and the words "THE CAR"; nor would he distinguish a real cunt from "CUNT" (or coal from "COAL" for that matter). This remarkable sentence implodes: The startling but fatuous comparison between movie violence and the ballerina's mutilation fetish indicts only the speaker inserting it between himself and his anxieties—and he can't keep from bragging about "millions" in the meanwhile. JONATHAN LETHEM

"Up North"

The best short stories are quietly masterful, so carefully crafted that you can't ferret out a seam, so damnably honest you don't think about trying. "Up North" falls into this category with jaw-dropping ease. Two things strike me right away about it. First, Time, as we've come to know it in fiction, has been upended and compressed. Past, present, and future no longer fill out neat rows of back-story, action, and conjecture. To look at a character like Daly or his wife, Caroline, is to see the whole of a person simultaneously—the failed childhood, the confused adult, the future tragedies: a kind of living suicide in progress. Depressing, no? Nope, actually, because here's the second thing: "Up North," a story spurred by rape and infidelity, is also funny. Toward the end of the story, a drunken woman in a union suit leans out from the cabin bunk (to which she's been exiled) to proclaim a profound truth to the group gathered below (who are, by the way, continuing Thanksgiving dinner without her): "You have stories... We have secrets." An interesting statement considering that the group, which includes a phalanx of philanderers and Caroline's unidentified rapist, are formed by secrets. As will be Daly, our narrator. Early on, Caroline tells Daly that only "the boys" go hunting: "And now you. You'll be one of the boys," a benediction that comes true at the story's end, when Daly's long-repressed frustration surfaces and he proves himself her kind of boy—D'Ambrosio's sort of boy—a rueful stranger with secrets. ADRIANNE HARUN

"The Scheme of Things"

The plot of the fifth story hangs on the tits of its protagonist, a young drifter named Kirsten, whose quest for a bra pretty much propels the story's action. The breasts first appear on the story's second page when a helpful teenage mechanic ogles them, and they keep popping up until the climax, when Kirsten finally steals an old lady's bra off of a laundry line.

The booby conceit pumps up what might otherwise be another short story about down-and-out recovering-addict whities scamming their way across the cornfields of Iowa—Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son springs to mind—and the motif raises some interesting questions such as, Can straight guys write from the perspective of a woman worried about her nipples showing without being voyeuristic? and, Is shame the primary motive for doing everything?

Although the characters in the story intersect a bit too schematically for my taste (motherless Kirsten is nurtured for a day by Gen, the old woman, who of course has lost a daughter), I like this story, and I love D'Ambrosio's rendering of family as randomly grouped and terribly idealized. Brilliant assemblages of toothy pumpkins, ceramic owls, and sad people turn up all over in uncannily striking ways. ANNA MARIA HONG

"The Dead Fish Museum"

Ramage, the main character in the book's title story, is a man who wisely keeps himself under suspicion but unwisely totes a gun. Newly discharged from a hospital (the psychiatric ward, a reader eventually infers), he doesn't know whether he's coming or going, homicidal or suicidal; but he has signed on as foreman of the carpentry brigade for a three-day porn shoot in a hick town fragranced by a spice factory. When not shoplifting from a convenience store or stealing into a motel room to pacify a crying infant (tots and tykes bring out the murderousness in him but also a compensatory urge to rescue), Ramage finds himself uneasily thrown into the role of buffering agent between a couple of underlings (a tauntful black man and an illegal alien from El Salvador trying hard to keep his own counsel) and luring the film's female lead into his motel room, where the little dialogue he enacts between his gun and a bullet—the former says, "Will you marry me?" and the latter says, "Let's have a baby"—neither impresses her nor scares her off. In lesser hands, the ample psychopathology of the story might feel a trifle forced or rote, but here the sentences keep flaming reliably into pure poetry. Even the story-framing descriptions of a lonely, romance-reading motel clerk come across as fresh and essential. GARY LUTZ

"Blessing"

Every spring in Skagit Valley, millions of tulips appear as if by the snap of a sorceress's fingers, rather than the autumnal labor of tulip farmers. "Blessing," the penultimate story in the collection, is set near the capital of Skagit County, Mount Vernon, a month before the tulips bloom—"late February." The two elements that dominate "Blessing" are the home and the river. The home is owned by an insurance agent and his wife, a struggling actress. Not far from their flood-insured fixer-upper is the menacing Skagit River, which flows westward toward the San Juan Islands. The couple recently moved here from New York City, and we enter the story just before the wife's father, brother, and sister-in-law pay them an expected visit. The father is a failed athlete; the brother is a failed everything; and the sister-in-law is a quiet Filipina who spends much of the story with a noisy baby. Around the middle of "Blessing" is a Brahms sonata, which slowly pours out of a living-room stereo as the insurance agent and his in-laws stare at a fire roaring in the fireplace. A "little mournful, Germanic, and dirgelike," the sonata's cello and piano approach "each other tentatively." The condition of the music is the condition of the story, the marriage, the home, the thousand-year-old clouds, and the land that was once covered by ice. CHARLES MUDEDE

"The Bone Game"

Lately, usually, I'd rather run my fist along the edge of someone's winged scapula than read literature. Especially cerebral, abstracted literature; I can't stomach it. I'm serious. In massage school, we stay focused on tangible structures, like bones and ligaments. Meanings don't matter much.

So I was pretty reluctant to sit down to read "The Bone Game," although the title was attractive. What was I thinking? Goddamn this man can write. From the very first lines of this messy journey of a man carrying his grandfather's ashes while accompanied by crazy-ass companions, D'Ambrosio builds a rich, physical tale, with all the weight and curved angles of a body. He provides in the space of one day a layered, sensory-dense world in which everything we see—a broken cowboy boot, a beach littered with salmon, milk pouring from a gunshot hole—is connected symbolically, and systemically, like the ribs are to breathing. D'Ambrosio generously threads these details around fresh twists of dialogue; he doesn't push you to follow him home to significance. And he lulls you with loose and friendly rhythms like this: "When Nell sat up, one of her small breasts showed, the nipple dark brown like a knot in wood. It glistened with saliva. She tied the tails of her shirt together."

What I said at first, that was bullshit. Reading a story like this one is a visceral experience. TRISHA READY recommended

Charles D'Ambrosio reads from The Dead Fish Museum on Thurs May 11 at Elliott Bay Book Company, 101 S Main St, 624-6600, 7:30 pm, free.