Occasionally when I'm walking by Seattle Central Community College I can taste the meaty smoke of the Bonney-Watson funeral home incinerator. They fire that thing up at unpredictable hours—sometimes during the day, so you can see the smoke clearly and maneuver upwind, other times in the middle of the night, so it makes dark smoke against a dark sky, like the palette, I always think, of the famous 9/11 cover of the New Yorker. The cover of the New Yorker this week is considerably less grim (it's a subway scene with Eskimos), but the fiction is by Charles D'Ambrosio, who, by the fifth paragraph, has a character sitting in a Cadillac and unscrewing an urn. Then comes a gust of wind. A "cloud of gray ash eddied through the car. Kype coughed and fanned the air as some of the powdery remains of his grandfather drifted under his nose and blew into the street. He ran his tongue over his lips...."
Yes, D'Ambrosio's new story is full of dead people. Yes, the living people in it are sort of wrecked. There is a girl, there is shooting, there are "thin and mutilated" fish, there is big-time loss, there is madness. But there is also some awfully funny stuff. No one ever notices that D'Ambrosio is funny. There's a memorial service that is compared to "the stilted air of a museum fund-raiser." There's mention of a minor character having died in a "boating accident," followed by this colorful detail: "waterskiing drunk, he'd neglected to let go of the rope and had smashed into the dock." There's a character who says, explaining why he doesn't want to lead a long life, "I can't get into old people."
Plus, beauty. It's a great, gut-chewing story.
It's true that every time D'Ambrosio burps I write a column about him. When his collection The Dead Fish Museum comes out next month, I will most definitely jump up and down and wave my arms and insist you buy it—I can't help it, he's too good to ignore. And since we're on the subject, it bears mentioning that D'Ambrosio has a short, mordant piece about his basement in the new issue of the Northwest architecture and design journal Arcade, which I guest edited. Arcade is beautiful, I was honored to be asked, and I was thrilled that D'Ambrosio (and many other great writers) contributed. There are echoes of D'Ambrosio's New Yorker piece in his Arcade piece. In the New Yorker, he describes a woman's nipple as "dark brown like a knot in wood." In his Arcade piece, dark knots appear again. In the walls of his basement. His first sentence: "A basement just like the one my brother shot himself in, nicely finished in knotty pine."
Get a free copy of Arcade at the issue-release party on Fri March 3 at Frye Art Museum (704 Terry Ave, 622-9250). The party starts at 5:30 pm, is open to the public, is followed by a 7:30 pm presentation by Robert Horton and Charles Mudede called "Seattle in the Movies," and is free. See you there.