The New York Times
Dead Fish Museumby Charles D'Ambrosio
“In the fall, I went for walks and brought home bones. The best bones weren’t on trails—deer and moose don’t die conveniently—and soon I was wandering so far into the woods that I needed a map and compass to find my way home. When winter came and snow blew into the mountains, burying the bones, I continued to spend my days and often my nights in the woods. I vaguely understood that I was doing this because I could no longer think; I found relief in walking up hills. When the night temperatures dropped below zero, I felt visited by necessity, a baseline purpose, and I walked for miles, my only objective to remain upright, keep moving, preserve warmth. When I was lost, I told myself stories . . .”
So Charles D’Ambrosio recounted his life in Philipsburg, Montana, the genesis of the brilliant stories collected here, six of which originally appeared in The New Yorker. Each of these eight burnished, terrifying, masterfully crafted stories is set against a landscape that is both deeply American and unmistakably universal. A son confronts his father’s madness and his own hunger for connection on a misguided hike in the Pacific Northwest. A screenwriter fights for his sanity in the bleak corridors of a Manhattan psych ward while lusting after a ballerina who sets herself ablaze. A Thanksgiving hunting trip in Northern Michigan becomes the scene of a haunting reckoning with marital infidelity and desperation. And in the magnificent title story, carpenters building sets for a porn movie drift dreamily beneath a surface of sexual tension toward a racial violence they will never fully comprehend. Taking place in remote cabins, asylums, Indian reservations, the backloads of Iowa and the streets of Seattle, this collection of stories, as muscular and challenging as the best novels, is about people who have been orphaned, who have lost connection, and who have exhausted the ability to generate meaning in their lives. Yet in the midst of lacerating difficulty, the sensibility at work in these fictions boldly insists on the enduring power of love. D’Ambrosio conjures a world that is fearfully inhospitable, darkly humorous, and touched by glory; here are characters, tested by every kind of failure, who struggle to remain human, whose lives have been sharpened rather than numbed by adversity, whose apprehension of truth and beauty has been deepened rather than defeated by their troubles. Many writers speak of the abyss. Charles D’Ambrosio writes as if he is inside of it, gazing upward, and the gaze itself is redemptive, a great yearning ache, poignant and wondrous, equal parts grit and grace.
A must read for everyone who cares about literary writing, The Dead Fish Museum belongs on the same shelf with the best American short fiction.
The New York Times
“The stories that make up The Dead Fish Museum are lithe masterpieces of emotional chiaroscuro.” —Elle“Impossible to put down. D’Ambrosio’s prose is fluid, even insinuating. Sentence leads on to sentence with a momentum that mimics the twisted logic of madness, the small steps and sudden turns that lead people from well-lit streets and into dark alleys.” —The Seattle Times“Every other sentence is a masterpiece. Not a museum—type masterpiece, to be admired but not touched, to be treasured but not explored, but one you could find on a nature trail, created by the author but guided by the hand of God. . . . A reader will gain something rare after reading this book: a sense of wonder at the resilience of a human soul.” —Bloomsbury Review
Read an Excerpt
The High Divide
At the Home I’d get up early, when the Sisters were still asleep, and head to the ancient Chinese man’s store. The ancient Chinese man was a brown, knotted, shriveled man who looked like a chunk of gingerroot and ran one of those tiny stores that sells grapefruits, wine, and toilet paper, and no one can ever figure out how they survive. But he survived, he figured it out. His ancient Chinese wife was a little twig of a woman who sat in a chair and never said a word. He spoke only enough English to conduct business, to say hello and goodbye, to make change, although every morning, when I came for my grapefruit, I tried to teach him some useful vocabulary.
I came out of the gray drizzle through the glass door with the old Fishback Appliance Repair sign still stenciled on it, a copper cowbell clanging above me, and the store was cold, the lights weren’t even on. I went to the bin and picked through the grapefruits and found one that wasn’t bad, a yellow ball, soft and square from sitting too long in the box, and then I went to the counter. The Chinese man wasn’t there. His tiny branchlike wife was sitting in her chair, all bent up. I searched my pockets for show, knowing all along that I’d be a little short. I came up with twenty-seven cents, half a paper clip, a pen cap, and a ball of blue lint. I put the money in her hand and she stared at it. By the lonesome sound my nickels and pennies made when she sorted them into their slots I also knew that the till was empty. I looked behind her through the beaded curtain to the small apartment behind the shop. Next to the kitchen sink was an apple with a bite out of it, the bite turned brown like an old laugh.
I held my grapefruit, tossed it up in the air, caught it.
Where is he? I asked.
She was chewing on a slice of ginger and offered me a piece, which I accepted. In the morning, they chewed ginger instead of drinking coffee.
Husband? I said.
She blinked and spat on the floor. Meiyou xiwang, she said. Meiyou xiwang.
She folded her hands, tangling the tiny brown roots together. Meiyou xiwang, she said, touching her heart, and sending her hands flying apart. Her singsong voice beat an echo against the bare walls. Her hands flapped like a bat. I shook my head. Meiyou xiwang, she insisted. Huh? I said, but I knew we could go on forever not making any sense. She hugged herself, like she was cold. I didn’t know what to say. She’d traveled all this way, she’d left China and crossed the ocean and come to Bremerton and opened a little store and put grapefruit in the bins and Mogen David on the shelves, but she’d gone too far, because now she couldn’t tell anybody what was happening to her anymore.
I had two projects at the Home. I was reading the encyclopedia, working through the whole circle of learning available to man, as the introduction said. I’d started with Ignatius Loyola, because I’m named after him, and the Inquisition, and this led me right into the topic of torture.
My other project involved learning Latin so I could be an altar boy. I got the idea one morning at Sacred Heart while I was staring at the cold altar and the Cross and winking at the nailed-up Christ to see if He’d wink back. Our priest said that he didn’t go for the vernacular because it was vulgar. If you were God Eternal, he said, would you want to listen to such yowling? He said that everything in the Church was a sign for something else, and a priest was a man who knew all the signs, but an altar boy knew a few of them, too. I looked around the sanctuary. With the snowy marble slab of altar, the gilt dome of the tabernacle and its tiny doors, the chalices and cruets, the fresh-cut flowers, the sparkling candlelight, the sanctuary was like a foreign country, and if I knew the language I could go there.
Several times I read the Missal as far as the Minor Elevation, the part of the Mass just after you pray for the dead. Per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen. World without end. Amen. But I was trying to learn Latin with phonetics—the Missal was Latin on one side, English on the other—and, needless to say, my comprehension was zero, and I was always finding myself back at the beginning, starting over. Per omnia saecula saeculorum, amen!
Most of our schoolwork focused on how to get into Heaven. Sister Eulalia, the catechism nun, taught us about sin and the opportunities for salvation. She was a short, wide old woman with thick glasses and blue eyes that drifted behind them like tropical fish. She kept calling Jesus the Holy Victim and the Word Made Flesh and the Unspotted Sacrifice. She said that sacrifice didn’t mean to kill but to make holy. We are made in the image of God’s great mystery but through our ignorance and despair our vision is clouded. Salvation, she told us, is our presence in a bright light where we at last become the perfect image and reflection of our Creator.
We saw a slide show on the scapular. A boy was riding by a gas station on his bicycle. A man was pumping gas and a family was waiting in a car. Then the gas station was blowing up and the boy was flying through the air. Everybody died but the boy, who was wearing his scapular. Sister Eulalia passed around blank order forms and said to fill them out and bring $2.50 if you thought it was prudent to have a scapular for yourself. I’d spent all my money on grapefruits, though.
At night, in bed, I practiced my prayers. We had to memorize so many at the Home: Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Act of Faith, of Hope, of Love, of Contrition. Praying either put me to sleep or made me think of girls. Once, I passed a girl a note during class and Sister Josephine, the discipline nun, intercepted it and said someone my age doesn’t know the least thing about love and shouldn’t use that word the way I did. That kind of love is special, she said. It’s a rare gift from God, it’s the consummation of a union, and it’s certainly nothing for children. Sister Josephine called it The Marriage Act. It’s embarrassing for me to admit, but she made me cry, she was yelling so much. I never sent another note. Still, I attached a vague feeling of hope to different girls, a feeling of, I don’t know, of whatever, that came out, some nights, when I said prayers.
We had to learn the prayers because we prayed for everything: we prayed for food, we prayed for sleep, we prayed for new basketballs. Three times a day, Sister Catherine, the food nun, took us to the church cafeteria for our meals. Volunteer ladies served us—they were all old and kind and had science-fiction hair, clouds of blue gas, burning white-hot rocket fuel, explosions of atomic frizz. I loved the endless stacks of white bread and the cold slabs of butter. When the nuns said I was underfoot, I went downstairs and studied the encyclopedias or read Latin or went outside and shot buses with my pump gun. Buses passed the Home every twenty-six minutes. I built up my arm pitching rocks at a tree until a circle of pulpy white wood was exposed in the bark. One afternoon I planted a sunflower in a milk carton.
I longed to go somewhere but there wasn’t anywhere good that I knew of. Then one day I found the public-school yard.
What’re you doing here, you stupid shit? asked one kid, a pudgy boy with skin like a baby.
He and some other boys pushed around me in a circle.
The pudge said, Who are you?
When I didn’t answer, he said, You’re one of those orphan bastards, right?
The boys crowded in closer and I was afraid to speak. People could tell you were from the Home by your haircut. We were all shaved up like the Dalai Lama.
Finally I smiled and mumbled, If you say so.
What? the pudge said. I didn’t hear you.
The circle of boys cinched like a knot. Their looming heads were way up in the sky.
Yeah, I said.
After that I sat below the monkey bars and chewed a butter sandwich and watched pudge-boy and his gang over by the water fountain with some girls and I knew I was going to have to kick his ass sooner or later. Everything else was new and strange but this seemed predictable and something I could rely on.
That spring the pudge had the nerve to try out for base- ball. He wore brand-new cleats and threw like a fem and his mitt, also brand-new, very orange and stiff, wouldn’t close. He might as well have been standing in right field with a piece of toast. He dropped everything. The second day of practice, we had an intrasquad game and I nailed him three times. I just chose places on his fat body and threw the ball at them. Eventually, pudge-boy was afraid to stand in the batter’s box. The coach thought I had a control problem but I didn’t. My control was perfect.
I whiffed nine guys and made the team and the pudge was cut. He walked away, crying. I ran down the hill and jumped on his back. I hit him in the face and the neck and beat on his ear over and over. You hear that? I shouted. You hear that, you fat fucker? Now that I had him alone I was insane. The pudge rolled away on the grass, holding his ear. Blood was coming out. He was bawling, and I hawked a gob of spit right into his black wailing mouth and said, You bastard.
That night, I was asleep with the encyclopedia pitched like a tent over my nose when Sister Celestine, the head nun, came in.
Why weren’t you at dinner?
I could hear the polished rocks of Sister Celestine’s rosary rattling as she worried them between her fingers.
She pulled the encyclopedia off my head.
Won’t you talk? Sister said.
She tucked a dry, stray shaft of hair back beneath her habit. Maybe you’d feel more comfortable making a confession?
I picked at the fuzzballs on my blanket.
I just got off the phone with that boy’s mother, she said.
She touched a cut on my lip and took a deep breath. She said, You called him a name. Do you know what that name means?
I shook my head.
She took off her scapular and put it around my neck. Two small pieces of brown wool hung on a cord, one in back, the other in front.
I rubbed the wool between my finger and thumb.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of the short story collections The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, and the essay collection Orphans. His fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Paris Review, Zoetrope, All-Story and A Public Space.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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D'Ambrosio is a masterful author and the reader will find it hard to come away from this collection without exemplars of fine writing. In particular, he does fantastic work of reifying emotions, thoughts, and moods into behaviors--even the slightest gesture. These stories depict characters moving through their dilemmas. And while the dilemmas are well articulated and the characters are well described, they seem to wallow rather than move or develop. D'Ambrosio provides this fine collection which deserves a thorough read.
Well written and highly original.
The amazing thing about this octet is how fully developed the key characters and in some cases the support protagonists are this level of depth usually requires a novel and that often fails to produce well rounded players like Charles D'Ambrosio has done with his short stories (and a few short novellas). The prime players share in common a fatal flaw that they fail to recognize as each one deceives themselves on what is causing their woes and how to fix their unhappiness. Instead they tend to misread the tea leaves and compound their inner turmoil and discord. All the inclusions are excellent and the collection will be recognized as one of the year¿s best anthologies with its insight into human needs and desires thwarted by personal negative traits in which rationalization, passing culpability and coping become the norm. The fascinating tales such as the twisted obsessive 'Up North' with the husband fixated on bringing justice to the unknown family friend who raped his wife when she was a teen grip readers as few compilations can.---- Harriet Klausner