Monday, May 21, 2007

The Dead Fish Museum (Short Stories Vol. 1)

The Dead Fish Museum is Charles D'Ambrosio's second collection, following his acclaimed 1995 debut collection, The Point. He is a master at telling fascinating stories with believable characters forced to make hard choices, which often lead to the most wonderful and unexpected results. His prose is brilliant, yet clean, and matches his exceptional gift for storytelling.

Two of the stories, "Screenwriter" and "The Scheme of Things," appeared in the Best American Short Stories anthologies in consecutive years, and they are certainly two of the most memorable. While most of his stories are comparatively straightforward, realistic, and highly observational, "The Scheme of Things" is refreshing in its subtle bizarreness, a tale of two addicts, drifting through the Heartland, searching for ways to score cash to fuel the habit. The couple's path becomes complicated, of course, when the stay with a generous older couple. While this narrative move isn't exactly unexpected, D'Ambrosio's gift for dazzling language and the believable and unique human reaction surprise the reader, creating a memorable story.

"Screenwriter" is the perfect example of a memorable piece of fiction. I first read this story in the December 8, 2003 New Yorker, and, at a time when I was disillusioned with the homogeneity of the fiction. While I admit to being an initial skeptic of any story with a screenwriter, this masterful choice allows for the convincing observation and flowing and fractured (it is both) path. I was grabbed by the natural storytelling voice, the perfect details, and the appropriately awkward motions of the characters. Set in a psych ward, the combination of abbreviated jargon and the sprawling minds of its patients, the broken narrator allows us to glimpse the insanity of his fellow inhabitants - without allowing us to forget his own fragility and unreliability. As a writer, I find endings to be ultimately challenging; in "Screenwriter," D'Ambrosio approaches the romantic conclusion (in both senses of the term), but expertly inhabits the space between the gratuitous and easy payoff and the deflating, deconstructing failure. I had the good fortune of hearing him read this story two years later and it was like hearing a long-forgotten never-played favorite song on the car radio.

Every story in this collection is deserving of discussion, but that's for another day, perhaps. Both the title story and "Up North" need specific mention at this moment, though. In "The Dead Fish Museum," three very different men work as set carpenters on a porn film location, with the constant tension of language and culture barriers, overwhelming sexuality, and a handgun. The latter is a haunting story about a husband's attempt to negotiate his emotional and psychological turmoil manifested by the adolescent rape of his wife by a family friend. Set at her family's winter hunting cabin, the tension and emotional weight of this story is crushing and unforgettable.

For fans of short fiction that borders on the absurd or fantastic, the review of Charles D'Ambrosio would likely - and unfortunately - scare you away, with allusions like Carver and Hemingway being dropped. D'Ambrosio takes you to the wonderful and unexpected destinations where all good short fiction resides; he does it with the metered language and careful pacing of minimalism, as well as with layered language, contemplative prose, and awing images.

The Dead Fish Museum
is an amazing collection. Each story is precious and savory, a product of D'Ambrosio's perfectionism. Check you shelves for a recent O. Henry or Best American Short Stories collection and you'll likely find a one of these stories. Or, pick up The Dead Fish Museum and start reading "Screenwriter," "The Scheme of Things," "The Bone Game," or the title story and get drawn into this collection that you'll read a few times before making a friend do the same.


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