You know D'Ambrosio as the author of extraordinary stories in The Dead Fish Museum and The Point and Other Stories. This collection of his essays–a delightfully solid and lovely volume, the size of my palm, from Clear Cut Press–isn't as ubiquitous. But it deserves to be.
The eleven essays are haunting, hallucinatory, and so sharp-eyed that it rattles the bones. D'Ambrosio moves among landscapes like a watchful ghost–from oddball modular homes in Washington state, to the infamous Hell House, from Seattle in 1974 to a Russian orphanage, from a tent on a cold ocean beach to a utopian experiment in small town Texas to a courthouse multiplex where a teacher's on trial for becoming pregnant by her 13-year-old student.
Sound strange? D'Ambrosio thinks so too … or rather, he's rapt at the spaces of ambivalence, of fakery and rhetoric, the blurring of what we mean and the meaning we make.
Perhaps the rarest quality in Orphans is D'Ambrosio's fearlessness in taking a stance. These aren't essays of endearing observation. They stand for something.
Consider, from, 'Mary Kay Letourneau,'
"In the case of King Lear, the language that let's us see his magnificent ruin has outlasted Newtonian optics. Science deals with things, not human beings, and is speechless."
And, from 'Whaling,'
"Nowadays, it's just as likely the surface of life is what puzzles Pip and finally sends him around the bend, and today's cabin boy must go alone into the quiet depths to escape and find peace and recover for himself a measure of sanity. It's civilization that's raw and wild and full of scary monsters and grotesques and deformities crowding every bus and park bench and court of law, whereas we now believe our wilderness exhibits the high sweet harmony we hope for from life as well as offering the refuge and sanative balm we desire when our energies flag and the botch of civilization gets us down."
Also from 'Whaling,'
"… If you love abstractly, you're only a bad day away from hating abstractly."
I read Orphans along with a friend. As we moved through it we kept updating each other: "'Brick House' is my favorite one." "Okay, now 'Modular Homes' is my favorite. But it's tied with 'Degrees of Gray'…" Another remarkable piece of D'Ambrosio's essays is they are all good. Most essay collections have at least one, usually more, downbeats that act as filler around the more interesting title essay. To read many collections through is hit-or-miss. Not so, here. Your attention must be paid.
Throughout, D'Ambrosio's language is at once cuttingly personal–evoking at length even the words of a brother who committed suicide and a father who disappoints–and expansive. The reader is disarmed by his candid first-person voice ('The Crime That Never Was' begins: "This is totally false, but for the sake of the story let's say the events in question begin around 2am, just because that's when I show up on the scene.") It's a perfect preparation for his acutely sensitive insights and strong stances that might otherwise feel hollow or–egad–pretentious.
The strategy is syntactically mirrored: D'Ambrosio's language is simple, full of nouns, contractions, dialogue and scarcely any adjectives; yet it's punctuated by odd words that crackle in the mouth: mantic, saurian, asperse, ambuscade, echoluction. paladin. In context the words take shape–there's no serious linguistic difficulty–but I found myself copying the words out and saying them aloud to myself. Upon looking them up, I found that every single one of the words on my list were designated as 'archaic' or 'formal.'
Is it a case of D'Ambrosio showing off? (I recall Will Ferrell, in the brilliant Matrix spoof that originally aired at the MTV Movie Awards, desperately shouting 'ergo!' 'vis a vis!').
Hardly. The firecracker 'archaic' words in context of simple language are an expansive device–elevating D'Ambrosio's personalist narrative out of his body and into a space that transcends time. It parallels what the content of the essays do thematically–and makes for a reading of shivery brightness.
Orphans meets the collections Joan Didion and Ralph Waldo Emerson as the best short nonfiction you can read. Your hands should be all over it.
The book's publisher has an unusual story itself. Clear Cut Press's model runs like this:
"A $65 subscription (US) provides the subscriber with a complete series edition of six beautiful paper-bound books delivered throughout North America. … Subscribers will receive their books before the general public and enjoy special gifts and invitations to Clear Cut Press events. Subscribers also have the satisfaction of knowing their purchase enables Clear Cut Press to continue its work.
"Clear Cut is inspired by early 20th-century subscription presses Hours Press and Contact Editions, and by the midcentury paperbacks of New Directions and City Lights. These historical models seem well-suited to the independent economies that emerge every generation or so around the cultural movements and new demands of global youth, whether punk, grunge, hip-hop, hippie, beatnik or flapper."
D'Ambrosio's book was but one installment. I'd say the Clear Cut deal is probably more than worth it.
UPDATE: A reader shared some disturbing news about Clear Cut Press and how it worked with Orphans. It goes something like this:
as I agree with you (and do I ever) that Orphans is an unbelievably
good book, did you know Clear Cut press fucked him with it? They were supposed to
do a limited run that wouldn't conflict with the planned Knopf
hardcover. Instead they rushed it out, got it reviewed, and
effectively killed the hardback.
wasn't too happy about this–it's still a sore point with him, I think,
and who can blame him? Really a shitty thing to do. So much as I love
this book and think it should be a part of everyone's home (I think
there'll eventually be a Vintage paperback in the future) I try NOT to
endorse Clear Cut Press when I recommend the book. In fact the
"We love Charlie. We love Orphans. But, uh, Fuck Clear Cut Press."