Orphans
by Charles D'Ambrosio
(Clear Cut Press)
$12.95

If you want to read this review, fine, but there are better ways you and I could be spending our time. There are better things you could be reading. Charles D'Ambrosio's new essay collection, Orphans, is a smart, small, daring book, surprisingly alive, open to the world, inventive, occasionally furious, blistering and human, persuasive without ever once being pedantic, controlled, disarmingly funny, better than you can imagine. It's better than I'd imagined and I went into it with expectations, having already read one essay in the New Yorker and another in The Clear Cut Future. (And four of the essays, actually, first appeared in The Stranger, between 1994 and 1997, before I lived here.)

In other words, you should put down this review and pick up Orphans now because Orphans is better than what I can do. (Am I envious? Absolutely.) There are sentences in it, paragraphs, whole pages, that are so fluent and blunt and mysterious that they have the power to shake understanding. In essay after essay, D'Ambrosio finds problems with what we think we know--with Christian lunatics, with the case against whale-hunting, with the case against Mary Kay Letourneau, with eco-innovation, with orphans, with "big deal" TV journalists and "their insane pantomime of sincerity," with suicide, with Richard Hugo's poetry. The problems always run deeper than you think they're supposed to.

Maybe it's not surprising, since D'Ambrosio is a great fiction writer (read 1995's The Point), that the problems he's best at locating are problems that live and thrive in the swamp of language. His ambivalence about narrative is total: he, too, is a storyteller, but there are problems with that. "Mary Kay Letourneau," for example, his essay about the public school teacher who fell in love with one of her students, is a bristling and assured argument that Letourneau was railroaded by rhetoric: lawyerly vocabulary, strident TV psychobabble, unsympathetic radio idiocy, the "pretend wonder" of the Seattle Times, the fatuousness of a whole parade of miscellaneous specialists (educational, sociological, moral). "You could see, on the day of [Letourneau's] sentencing..." he writes, "how language was being leveraged, how each fragmented field with its problem solving vernacular was in a way carting off pieces of Letourneau, and how in the end there was nothing left" of the only thing she ever used to explain herself: the notion of love. Similarly, in "The Crime That Never Was," a witness at a crime scene tries to convince some TV journalists to listen to his version of events, but his account doesn't fit the journalists' needs, so they ignore him. The journalists "have control of the story." And the witness? "The truth is just fucking with him and he's suffering narrative problems."

D'Ambrosio, as a reporter, has a stake in his subjects, and some of the essays turn on personal confessions. In "Whaling," he writes about his family: "We've shot ourselves and jumped from bridges and lost our minds and aborted some of our babies and orphaned others and now reproducing and carrying on the family name is down to me, and the truth is soul-wise I'm likely a bigger monster than either of my broken brothers or my father." He writes, in "Seattle, 1974": "Being alone at night in Seattle began to seem horrifying, there was just so much nothing and so little of me." He writes, in "Orphans," about being broke and being approached by a Russian prostitute who mistakes him for a rich American: "I felt like we were trying to negotiate a swap of cultural clichés. I was too embarrassed to tell her that basically my mother and sister and brother-in-law had been supporting me until my new mood stabilizers kicked in and I could once again think clearly about my life, i.e., get out of bed in the morning."

D'Ambrosio has a knack for sentences that can flatten you, and for first sentences ("Four in the morning and I crawl out of the tent, thinking, what's my penis for, anyway, other than pissing?"), and for sentences that end on the unexpected (brilliant) word. A boy's room in a Russian orphanage is "pretty much a rendition of a boy's room in America, but without the wherewithal." His writing is stylish ("Even without a philosophical assist my uselessness appalls me"), intimidating (Orphans constantly confounded my apparently shitty Webster's New World Dictionary and constantly references Pascal, Milosz, Auerbach, Dante, Adorno, Brodsky, etc.), and casual ("I've stood in the rain and waited for buses or whatever").

The final essay in the book--this book is impossibly good, there's nothing I can do to capture it, it's the best nonfiction I've read in years--is an analysis of Richard Hugo's poem "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg" ("You might come here Sunday on a whim./Say your life broke down..."), which begins with despair and ends in a diner. D'Ambrosio is quick, devastating, and masterful when it comes to loss. And painfully, unbelievably funny. He begins his analysis of the poem with a quick summary of each of the four stanzas. The summary goes like this:

1. You're fucked.

2. We're all fucked.

3. Why?

4. Let's have lunch.

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