This Book Is Very, Very Good—So I Insisted on Writing About Two Pieces in It
By Rebecca Brown
Loitering is a great book. Anyone who wants to read or write personal essays or read or write anything that has any value or truth at all should read it. This is that rare book that deserves to last. Here are some things I learned from the first two pieces in it:
1. "By Way of a Preface" begins with the writer, Charles D'Ambrosio, as a kid sitting at a bus stop in Seattle, "maybe the loneliest place in the world for me." The kid can't drive and isn't really comfortable anywhere. He needs to go somewhere but where. He waits for the bus and reads "in the vague light," as vague as knowing, as vague as the world, and "discovers" the essay. Reading can help with loneliness.
2. The kid has been pointed to a book by M. F. K. Fisher by someone in a bookstore, and the world opens up. Bookstores are good.
3. The kid has been raised in a not-rich family, i.e. a place where gourmet food is not present. ("Your stomach doesn't care," says the father.) But Fisher's essays about foie gras and champagne are written in a prose that does something to a young D'Ambrosio. "The rhythms of prose [come] from the body." That's D'Ambrosio the adult talking, the writer and the writing teacher, and it sounds right, like something that you can believe and that can help you understand the world of your body and the world. The rhythms of prose come from the body.
4. Those words I quoted just now are followed by "and though I still believe that, I still don't know what I mean." You write not because you know or understand something, but because you long or need to understand or know. Writing is seeking, and a personal essay is "the voice holding steady in the face of doubt." Writing is both a record of and how you live with doubt. The personal essay "leaves its questions on the page." If you think you know what you're trying to say you're not only wrong, you're not trying enough. You write to say you know you'll never know.
5. All of that above is just in the preface. The essay that comes next, "Seattle, 1974," begins with D'Ambrosio as a young snob, "clever and scoffing, ironic, detached, cold and quick to despise" and miserable where he lives. Such misery is common in kids growing up in hokey places. They imagine (I did this too) smarter, artier, cooler places like France. For a while, D'Ambrosio confesses, he wore a black beret. But this essay doesn't stay making easy fun of the obvious target of adolescent priggishness. Instead it suggests that such pretense can be "a logical first step in developing an aesthetic, a reach toward historical beauty, the desire to join yourself to what's already been appreciated and admired. You want to find yourself in the flow of time, miraculously delivered of your irrelevance." Art, particularly the personal essay, with its uncertainty and doubt, can be, as it became for this author, a means of self-discovery and a step toward a sense that you belong. You write to save yourself, the way you read to save yourself. This book can help with that.
D'Ambrosio's Writing Makes Me Jealous—Makes Me Wonder, How Is This Even Possible?
By Charles Mudede
When you come across writing that is not just good but brilliant, you have to wonder about the writer, about what goes on in their mind, what made them different from the rest of humanity—something they ate? The way they sleep? The dreams they have? Most us who write for a living cannot describe the lion-sized joy we feel when a piece of writing we have just completed contains two or three good passages. We have done our very best. What more do you want than that? And then you read an essay by Charles D'Ambrosio and you realize how lame you are, how much more you could have done. It's not that he can write lots of great sentences, but that you honestly wonder if he is capable of writing a bad one.
This is not an exaggeration. (I really wish it were.) Read "Whaling Out West," the third essay in Loitering. The story is simple enough: D'Ambrosio visits the Olympic Peninsula to score some whale meat. He has never tasted it before. He hopes to cook a few pieces on a fire. He has brought some medicine just in case the experience does not agree with him. The Pacific Ocean is not far from his tent. This is pretty much it. But then the writing swirls furiously, beautifully around this core. It's writing that goes into D'Ambrosio's past, his future, his penis, his city, his religious background, his dog, and his position on a controversy involving the Makah nation's right to do something that their ancestors did for hundreds of years: hunt whales. (He thinks they have a right to make mistakes without help from white people.)
In one of my favorite passages in all of his writing, D'Ambrosio gets philosophical about the whale. And it's here that we see exactly what it is that makes him an exceptional conductor of thoughts through the medium of words. The ideas that compare emotional depths with sea depths, the sea beast with his father, the desire to eat with the desire to fuck, course through his prose without resistance, without friction. Some writers have all the luck.
The Way He Writes About Family Does Funny Things to Your Insides
By Trisha Ready
Families can be lethal. I'm not talking about families as entities of intimate individuals gathered around abundant tables. What I mean is what we inherit—the secrets, the symbols, the synaptic lapses that happen around emotionally turbulent silences—and how we make sense of all that. We run the risk of being wrecked by chaotic legacies that arrive in us unopened. A grandfather, as a young man, beating his brother to a pulp in one generation can show up in the next generation as a brother turning a gun on himself, or a brother jumping from a city bridge where how many other violent, inscrutable terrors of how many other families have been unraveled, and still kept hidden, in descent?
Charles D'Ambrosio's particular bravery is his persistence in making sense of the beautiful mess of being human by narrating his passage through the underground mineshafts and vaults of his own mind. He moves backward and forward through time, following thematic trails, falling into the gaps. Climbing out. Standing up. Dusting off. Venturing again to the edges where madness threatens to take him too, before he can make meaning out of chaos. All the while he keeps his readers close, and keeps us safe enough through eloquent and generous sentences, so we can venture into the unknown territories of our own minds, joined with his.
D'Ambrosio's narrative agility is a feat of awe, as always, in the essay "This Is Living." He explores his family stories and relationships around money and his own understanding of its worth—as symbol and as object. As a kid, he cherishes seven silver dollars, one given each year as a birthday gift. He stores these precious coins in a boot-shaped leather purse. He gives us enough lovingly rendered details about that boot and about the safety box in the bank (the place where his father feels most himself, and most at home) that we understand the depth of the author's disappointment when the magical myth of the coins, and the bank, and the empathic connection between him and his father—the whole family promise—disintegrates. His father has invested his passion in finance, not family. D'Ambrosio tries to find his father by chasing false notes. He inquires. He links. He literally jogs along the path of a flight his fearful father took from a violent fight scene. D'Ambrosio's quest is something like trying to find his father before his father took numb refuge in the orderly structure of numbers and theories and laws. It's the intention that matters here: the looking for true things, for new stories from discarded or dead-end family narratives. His will to rebuild is courageous.
One curious note: Women show up in D'Ambrosio's essays as absent exes or rumors; they're distant and uneasy ghosts, like the harsh grandmother who beats D'Ambrosio's father with a broom handle, or the sister who received a blood-stained letter from D'Ambrosio's father. If we shift perspective a bit, if we are talking about gender as an interior process rather than a manifestation, then perhaps D'Ambrosio's writing itself serves a kind of maternal function. He gathers within himself the dark and chaotic fragments of a bewildering family history, mixed with literary quotes, landscapes, and potent current and historical events, and transforms that broiling brew into stories we can bear.
I once watched D'Ambrosio perform a work in progress on stage at Richard Hugo House. It was over a decade ago. D'Ambrosio was living in Philipsburg, Montana, at the time. He used a large paper tablet mounted on a wooden easel to visually map leaps in his highly associative presentation. He was on that edge of allowing grief its license to shatter an old version of the world, while piecing together a new world, a new self from the remnants. It made me nervous, as if it unsettled the muck of my own implicit pond. I worked at Hugo House at the time, so I found some excuse to pace the periphery of the room, looking for a lost ticket or something else equally irrelevant. I was moved. He was sweating. He was showing us the hard work of writing. He had come out of incubation to show us an ultrasound of his emerging essay. The heart was beating. There were limbs. Later that piece became "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg," the very last essay in Loitering.
The Absence at the Center of "Documents"
By Adam Haslett
How do you get at the most important, impossible thing in a life when that thing—love—failed to happen? Stating the absence of it directly has a stench of failure too strong even for those who are likely to feel solidarity. It becomes an ugly complaint, or is judged as such, perhaps self-protectively, by a reader. So you have to go in sideways. You trace the shadows that the absence casts. You move indirectly. And preferably with concision. Because we're dealing with pain, which we want to do, but not for too long. And we want to be taken care of while we deal with it. Which is the difference between good and bad prose. Good prose takes care of you. It doesn't forget itself and lead you astray after you've taken its word and allowed it to cut you open, the way this essay will cut you open.
In "Documents," D'Ambrosio needs to talk about the impossible, and he does, brilliantly and heartbreakingly. There isn't a single word out of place in this piece about the relationship between love and words. It is fiercely precise. You trust the author in every sentence—that he has thought it through, that he means exactly what he writes, and that each phrase is rich with more than one meaning.
The absent love here is that of the father. Absent to the author and his two younger brothers, one of them schizophrenic, the other a suicide. Which, let's be honest, is a bit too much to bear. But D'Ambrosio knows this, which is why, instead of straight-up family reportage, he gives us only the echoes of what happened, the letters or documents written by the men in his family that circle around the pain.
The brother's suicide takes two paragraphs. And even then, we focus not on the act itself, with its distracting gore, but on the gap in time between the putting down of the pen used to write the suicide note and the taking up of the gun. D'Ambrosio confesses that he reads the letter his brother left "two or three times a month," and that he's "glad that I have it, because this way, we're still engaged in dialogue. His words are there and so is his hand, a hand I'd held, but, more important, one that left words, like an artifact, that are as real and physical to me as the boy who, at twenty-one, in a November long ago, wrote them."
Note the incredible tenderness of seeing his brother's writing hand as one that "I'd held." So obvious, and yet so easily missed—the warmth of the living hand. But we're there for only a beat, and then on to the "more important" fact that his brother's hand left words.
The essay is written from a point 16 years after the brother's death. It's left its mark on all the survivors. The schizophrenic middle brother sees it in religious terms. "I don't think of Danny a lot. I don't feel pain about his death a lot either. Jesus has stepped into his boots, and has replaced him." D'Ambrosio has no such consolation. He keeps his brother's boots on his desk, filled with stones.
What he has, instead, is this act of writing. This is the unspoken consolation. The essay's form doesn't only rehearse and amplify its psychic content; it is an expression of it. We know that D'Ambrosio has survived, and has retained his humanity, not by accident or luck, but through the grace and discipline of art.
Telling the Truth in a Haunted America
By Karen Russell
What I admire so much about every dome-blowingly beautiful essay in Loitering is the unsparing honesty, a candor that is never self-congratulatory, not even obliquely. D'Ambrosio will not lie to save his life; this writer seems to have a congenital inability to hew to the script, to recite the lines or feel the emotions that are frequently demanded of him. In the essay "American Newness," he goes on a tour of a dozen new modular homes in Washington State, but finds he simply can't bring himself to read the teleprompter and exclaim, "Wow, what a house!" when primed to do so by his supersweet tour guide. Instead, he tells us, with genuine sorrow, "I knew before I entered the building I'd betray her hope and trust."
The Fleetwood Home turns out to be a prefabricated box. A "sincere imitation" of a real house with a foundation. Inside these never-occupied units, breath is an event. D'Ambrosio "breaks the seal" on one of these homes, tracking his sweating, red-blooded body and pinwheeling mind through the sterile kitchen. He tells us that this house smells like nothing whatsoever, an unnameable factory-fresh scent that he terms "American newness." As we move through these empty rooms, we too get crushed by the extreme force of the salespeople's manufactured enthusiasm. Empty chairs are drawn up to plates of fake turkey and fake carrot dinners. If you're hungry enough, of course, even fake turkey can make you salivate, particularly if you are surrounded by an army of salespeople insisting that this turkey is nutritive and real. We feel the tremendous social pressure exerted on D'Ambrosio to ignore his actual perceptions and "write something nice." We watch him get brutalized by the coercive kindness of everyone on the factory floor, including the woman claiming to be "absolutely happy" in her triple-wide. Much of the humor here comes from our recognition of the bind in which D'Ambrosio finds himself, as a hugely compassionate person who is nevertheless incapable of bullshit.
In his estimation, these assembly line houses are grinning liars. "It's evilly un-American to say aloud, but real divisions exist between people, and the houses themselves try hard, desperately hard, to obscure those differences." A part of him, he admits, would love to surrender to the illusion that a home like this could exist: perfect as a Monopoly piece, portable, affordable, democratically available to all. And how can he betray these good people, the modular home enthusiasts, betrayed themselves by an economic system that gives only a select few a ladder out, a ladder up? Queasily, apologetically, he admits to us that he just can't fake it, but also that his failure to succumb to the sales pitch bothers him: "Normally I don't like my meaning ready-made, but by the time I headed out to my truck I was in total despair about not being with the program."
He is never superior, or glib, or anything less than absolutely forthright about the dread produced in him by the spotless kitchen, the shallow cabinetry, the unsoiled sheets: "All the rooms were furnished by a hired decorator but felt empty. What they were missing was you and yet it felt haunting to confront a face in the mirror." According to D'Ambrosio, the appeal of the sterile, portable modular home suggests "an abiding American assumption, mentally apocalyptic, that somehow the wrongs in history stem from our ignorance; once we're enlightened, we'll be free of our errant ways and history itself will stop and we'll come to rest in a return to Eden."
As a Florida kid, born into a tomorrowland of theme parks and "gated communities" with names like Ocean Village no matter how far they are from the sea, I'm particularly moved by the essay "American Newness." My own home was built on artificial bedrock. Our equivalent of the Fleetwood Home was probably the aboveground pool, and its appeal was predicated on the same delusions—that your kids could have a swimming pool, too, just like any rich person. D'Ambrosio's exploration of the commodification of home, and family, and Time itself woke me up, and made me reevaluate all of the flawed ideologies that go into the manufacture and sale of a sincere fraud. Floridians in particular will love this essay, I think; after all, fantasy is our state's major industry, and we like to pretend that we are an American Eden, a place like the modular home factory floor, where no promise has ever been betrayed, and "Everything's so brand new there isn't even any sound in the air."
I Never Would Have Predicted That of All the Writers He Could Lovingly Exhume, He Would Choose Richard Brautigan
By Paul Constant
The problem with literary reappraisals is they're usually too eager and overflattering, like the first hand job in a long-term relationship. No author can live up to all that panting and praise, and D'Ambrosio seems too sincere to engage in that kind of effluent puffery.
This is not a problem in his essay "Doo-Wop Down the Road: Richard Brautigan," in which he exhumes the work of the 1960s counterculture novelist, author of Trout Fishing in America. D'Ambrosio describes Brautigan's prose as "cracked and cloddy," full of "pleonasms and curious grammatical lapses," and shot through with "loopy metaphors" that can "fall so wide of the mark that they read as an extremely flat deadpan." Brautigan's sentences are "simple and often clunky," and his language demonstrates "crudeness" and "inarticulate sloppiness."
D'Ambrosio warns us again and again that Brautigan falls down in his language, that he succeeds and fails in almost equal measure. One imagines a peg-legged ballet dancer, pirouetting and clunking across a stage. And that's exactly the correct image for Brautigan, an author who is very dear to me despite his obvious flaws. (I've frequently loaned Brautigan's titles out to friends. One time out of four, the recipient becomes a diehard Brautigan fan. The rest of the time, the book returns to me half-read, in tandem with a slanted expression.) D'Ambrosio isn't coddling his readers, and he's also not lowering our expectations for that moment when we take the essay to the bookstore and slap down twenty bucks for one of Brautigan's books. He's being clear headed and—well, I want to say unsentimental, but that's not the right word.
Because D'Ambrosio is absolutely being sentimental in this essay. Even as he admits that enthusiasm for Brautigan is "hard to sustain past the age of thirty," you can feel his heart yawning wide for the man behind the blessedly imperfect prose, enclosing him in a skin-tight embrace. The most touching part of all this is that D'Ambrosio and Brautigan couldn't be more opposite if they were to star in a buddy cop film. (One is a highly emotional writer who bumbled into momentary fame as the literary voice of his generation. The other is an impeccable stylist known for his unapologetic realism. Together, they've got 24 hours to bring down a Colombian drug lord... if they don't bring each other down first!) The only connection they share is a general location of origin—the Northwest—and a tendency toward the melancholy, but you part ways with "Doo-Wop" knowing the same blood runs through their veins.
Fifty Shades of "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg"
By Rich Smith
A few years ago I moved from the Midwest to Seattle in order to study poetry at the University of Washington. On my third day in the city I found myself walking around Elliott Bay Book Company, the nicest, shiniest temple to reading I had ever seen. My new friend Jay Yencich—a native Seattleite, a poet who wrote about ghost towns, and a classmate—was showing me around, and we were playing an icebreaker game that poets play with each other called "What's the Best Poem in the World?" The selection at Elliott Bay was limited, but it contained the necessary diamonds. I held up Frank O'Hara's poem "My Heart" and asked Jay if he'd ever heard of it. He said of course he'd heard of it. Then he held up Richard Hugo's "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg" and asked if I had ever heard of it. I said of course I'd heard of it.
I was lying. He could tell.
He read it to me right there in the middle of the store, and in the way it's supposed to be read, as if he were complaining about car parts that hadn't come in. The minor public display of the whole thing embarrassed me too much to pay much attention to the poem, but I chalked it up as a beefy, tough guy lyric with a cool image at the end. I said something like, "Nice one, Jay. It's not the Best Poem in the World. But it's nice. I like the hair at the end." For a few minutes he couldn't really look at me. A sort of chasm opened up between us. He returned the book to the shelf. So we tried another icebreaker: Let's Get Beers. That seemed to work. But only kind of! In workshop, I was a terrible reader for Jay. I accused him of writing emotionally cowardly poems, smart poems about dead towns that nobody cared about.
The other day I read the essay "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg," Charles D'Ambrosio's take on Hugo's poem, and it made me realize just how much I had disappointed Jay. If you're not originally from this part of the country, if you didn't grow up haunted by the metaphorical implications of ghost towns, then you may not have heard of Hugo's masterpiece about the long bust of a boomtown. You might not even know it's a masterpiece or get what's so masterpiece-y about it. The poem is a straightforward lyric about the troubles of a particular town. So what? In D'Ambrosio's essay, partially because he lived it (the guy moved to Philipsburg, for Christ's sake) and partially because he's such a careful reader of poetry, he tells you so what. He is able to articulate, in a way that a transplant like me can really feel, the central concern of the poem. What is this Darkness that looms at the back of everything around here, and how much light does it take to break it?
Instead of turning to pop-scientists for answers to these questions of existential loneliness, feelings of failure, and good ol' fashioned ennui, D'Ambrosio turns to poets. He rallies not just Hugo but Milosz and Brodsky, poets who have been through the darkness of war and struggle unknown to many. D'Ambrosio takes seriously the claims these poets make about life, and in those claims he sees a possible liberation from Darkness. He thinks we should fall into it. To break away, a person, a town, a country must fall and take careful note of what she sees as she's falling. This is an important step because the stuff of poetry and possibly salvation is gleaned from those notes. The poem is not the rags and bones you find when you hit rock bottom, but the thing you have in your hand when you climb out of the well, the light that shines on the diner wall and the red hair from which it flung.
That's an excellent conclusion, but the quiet achievement of this essay is the casual and accessible way in which D'Ambrosio presents that idea and Hugo's poem in general. He talks about the poem like he's on his second bourbon and his department chair's long repaired to the drawing room. At one point he succinctly breaks down the poem thusly: "1. You're fucked. 2. We're all fucked. 3. Why? 4. Let's eat lunch." Just doing that, just saying what the poem is saying, what the poem is about (that ugly word) is a step in the right direction toward making poetry accessible to a wider audience. Though the tone is welcoming and casual, the quality of his analysis is by no means slight. In its intensity, clarity, and humanity, "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg" presents a model for how we can use poetry to think through our lives and the lives of others. It proves that poems are a form of thought in their own right, worthy of the time and attention it takes to really hear them.
Now, for the record, let me just say this: I'm sorry, Jay. I think I get it better now. Let's get drinks sometime soon.
Charles D'Ambrosio reads from Loitering on Thursday, October 30, at Elliott Bay Book Company at 7 pm.