Tin House BooksIn profiles of extraordinary athletes there is often a scene in which the athlete will recall the particulars of some long-ago play in detail so specific it’s as if he is narrating a replay. The purpose of such scenes, for the writer, is descriptive: This guy’s awareness is on the level of genius. He is playing a different game than everyone else.
There are few equivalencies between sports and writing except that both are creative endeavors, and every creative endeavor has its handful of practitioners who are playing a different game than their peers. This is the plane Charles D’Ambrosio occupies in the world of letters. His toolkit, finite and familiar, is the English language, the same one ticker-taping through your conscious mind and mine, but with it he constructs sentences, paragraphs, entire pages of such sustained insight and fluency that you can’t help but feel a little fraudulent as a fellow user of the same mother tongue.
Throughout the essays that comprise Loitering, his second such collection, D’Ambrosio roots around in our common cultural assumptions and unearths faulty logic, weaponized rhetoric, and a lack of sympathy. What we think we know—about whaling, haunted houses, orphans, suicide, and urban neighborhoods in decline, amongst other subjects—is riddled by these failures of understanding. The truth is always more complicated, once you take the time to look.
For example, in “Casting Stones,” D’Ambrosio writes about the trial of Mary Kay Letourneau, the public school teacher who fell in love with her 12-year-old student, and how “language was being leveraged” in the courtroom, the media, and in public opinion to nullify the only notion Letourneau ever offered by way of explanation: love. “This seemed a crude and retrogressive project,” D’Ambrosio writes, “since what really distinguishes us from apes is not the opposable thumb but the ability to hold in mind opposing ideas, a distinction we should probably try to preserve.” And in the title essay, a witness to a crime attempts to speak to some “big-deal” TV journalists about what he saw, but they ignore him because he doesn’t fit the narrative that is already going out on the airwaves, in a pantomime of truth-telling. The witness, drunk and disheveled, is caught in between the truth and truthiness, a place D’Ambrosio “recognize[s] as life itself.”
When D’Ambrosio fixes his eye on himself and his family, which is often, he unspools sentences of such rich introspection that you’ll read them and wonder how well you really know yourself. “Seattle, 1974” traces the writer’s youthful ambition and “hankering to expatriate” to a city with a richer culture than mid-70s Seattle. “Winning” is a rumination on change and loss, told through the story of an uncle’s bar in Chicago, the only remnant of which is a brick wall. And in “Whaling Out West,” D’Ambrosio camps out in the coastal woods with the plan to witness a Makah whale hunt but ends up writing 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.”
D’Ambrosio’s attention to language is exacting and phenomenological, such that his sentences reveal in their final, private selves truths that seem universal. Eleven of the 17 essays in Loitering also appeared in a limited-run 2005 collection called Orphans, which came and went in exactly the amount of time required to attract a cult following.
I think there’s a reason that essays are having a moment. “Essay” derives from the French infinitive essayer, which means “to try” or “to attempt.” Meanwhile, our cultural discourse veers from one stridently-argued conclusion to the next, an impoverished stream of takes and summations that leaves no room for ambivalence or nuance. The essay is the one forum in which we can find the contradictions, bewilderment, and uncertainty that are the dark matter of daily life. In a world where nothing ever adds up, inquiry and confession are better modes of discourse than the usual assaultive blunderbuss.
Because, as D’Ambrosio writes in this book’s preface: “We are more intimately bound to one another by our kindred doubts than our brave conclusions.”