NOVEMBER 10, 2014
I MIGHT BE in the minority here, but I relax whenever I read an essay. And to read a collection of essays, I find, is an almost truant pleasure, as if I were skipping my trip to the gym to grab a doughnut. (Maybe it’s because novels form the bulk of my literary exercise regimen, keeping the interpretive muscles that I developed as an English major lean and well toned.)
One of my more memorable experiences in literary delinquency was about 10 years ago: I was an undergrad at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when Charles D’Ambrosio came to campus to participate in the school’s Festival of Faith and Writing. I went to his reading, heard him on a panel, and was convinced that I needed one of his books. At the time, he had two: The Point, a collection of stories, and Orphans, a collection of essays. In the moment I wasn’t thinking about genre: if it’s possible to judge a book more shallowly than by its cover, I did: I chose Orphans for its size. At 4 by 5.5 inches, and just over 200 pages, it was small enough to fit in my back pocket. For the rest of the semester, I carried it around campus, slipping it out and reading a few pages when I needed a break from analyzing social conventions in the Victorian novel.
Back then, I didn’t know how lucky I was. Clear Cut Press, a small outfit based in Oregon, published only 3,500 copies of Orphans, which quickly sold out. Until now, to read D’Ambrosio’s nonfiction, you had to either pony up for a used copy or convince a friend to loan you hers. Thankfully, however, Tin House has gathered together the original 11 essays from Orphans along with six new pieces and an illuminating preface. Loitering: New and Collected Essays should help position D’Ambrosio as one of the major essayists now working in the genre.
Reading the book while shirking other responsibilities is, it turns out, an ideal approach. These essays stray far from their intended subjects, sometimes without even making it back. Most of them first appeared in journals or periodicals, including The Stranger, the longstanding alternative weekly in D’Ambrosio’s native Seattle. As a journalist, however, D’Ambrosio is delightfully unprofessional. He explains:
I rarely researched, preferring instead to work without a net — which may simply be another way of saying that I longed to fall. To fall, that is, and to hear what the descent had to say. “Bewilderment is the true comprehension,” Luther wrote. “Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge.” Truant in disposition, maybe I had no choice in the matter, but I took Luther’s exhortation to heart, embracing it in the spirit of a possibility.
D’Ambrosio falls into a wide range of subjects, including Native American whaling, housing developments, and tabloid martyr Mary Kay Letourneau, but his focus remains distinctive throughout: he is, you could say, a junk artist, drawn to objects, ideas, and people who, though cast off or forgotten by mainstream society, manage to endure.
In “Winning” (titled “Brick Wall” in Orphans), D’Ambrosio writes about a period in his life spent largely in an uncle’s Chicago bar, noting that “what remains of the place is an anonymous wall of brick.” The clientele consisted of drunks and gamblers, vocations that often go hand in hand. Alcohol was a tool for forgetting about the past, while gambling was a method for opting out of the future.
During the day, D’Ambrosio worked in a furniture warehouse, loading up settees and old crank phones for Winnetka residents who’ve come into the city to shop for authenticity. It’s a setup that another writer might milk for laughs — barflies flee the past; suburbanites fetishize it — but D’Ambrosio finds a strange symbiosis between the two, as if the barflies were the suburbanites in an alternate universe. And “winning,” by the way, is a term for mining clay to use in brickmaking, the earth rising up to form Michigan Avenue only to be razed and transformed again.
Junk plays an even larger role in “One More Paradise,” a profile of a man named Dave Santos and his efforts to construct an “eco-village” called Biosquat in East Austin, Texas. Santos sounds like someone D’Ambrosio would find sympathetic: Biosquat is the expression of a concept he calls trash worship, “an idea meant to elevate debris into an aesthetic and invigorate refuse with a rarefied sense of social mission.” This sounds like a junkyard transformed into a neighborhood of tree houses: huts made out of PVC pipe, tomato vines twisting through bike rims, toilets mounted on tricycles so as to harvest the nutrient richness of human waste. And D’Ambrosio admires Biosquat, whose efforts remind him of Watts Towers, the makeshift monument that Simon Rodia built in the Los Angeles neighborhood. But when Santos starts to speak, the author grows wary. In the essay, he presents one of Santos’s lectures verbatim, with his own mild interjections in brackets:
Ultimately, I think colonizing the atmosphere is the solution to a lot of ecological problems … [Uh-huh.] And it’s also more sensible than the space fantasies — the idea that we’re ready to build a bunch of rockets and blast off and live in orbit. [Right.] Engineering-wise, it’s much simpler to colonize the lower atmosphere. [Uh-huh.] And so we have the stratosphere, is where I started theorizing. I lectured at UT Aerospace on the subject … We could take carbon out of the atmosphere. We have excess carbon dioxide, we’d liberate oxygen to help us breathe up in the stratosphere, we could mix that oxygen in with our helium and live inside these huge cathedral spaces — we’d be talking a little like Donald Duck — but because of the solar energy coming in we’d have a shirtsleeve, close-to-sea-level-pressure environment, up above the weather [Uh-huh.], and totally reliable electric solar power. [Yeah.]
As a kind of concrete poetry, D’Ambrosio finds Biosquat moving and evocative, but he’s doubtful that the village offers practical solutions for the problems of the world. As for Santos: he may have a gift for unique linguistic imagery, but D’Ambrosio writes that “it’s the turning of this kind of trope that marks for me the line between belief and disbelief, between accepting the visionary and balking at the vision.”
In Orphans, “Winning” and “One More Paradise” appeared alongside other roundabout treatments of off-the-beaten-path material. Also tucked away in that book were intimations of a difficult family history — a distant father; a brother’s suicide; another’s attempt — more leitmotif than theme first time around; but in Loitering, a gorgeous new essay, “Salinger and Sobs,” puts these most personal experiences center stage.
However, D’Ambrosio is constitutionally incapable of telling one story at a time, which happens to be a valuable asset for an essayist. Case in point, “Salinger and Sobs” is ostensibly a consideration of The Catcher in the Rye. It begins with tragedy — D’Ambrosio’s, not Caulfield’s: when D’Ambrosio was 28, his youngest brother Danny, then age 21, shot himself in the head. A year or so later, the second youngest, Mike, jumped off a bridge with the intention of drowning, and shattered his pelvis instead. “I thank God for certain kinds of failure,” D’Ambrosio says. Years later he happens on Salinger, whom he’d long ago skipped over in favor of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Having lost a brother himself by the time he reads the book, he can’t help but be aware of the way the death of Allie haunts Holden’s story. “My guess is that in high school students learn that Holden doesn’t go home right away because he knows he’s going to be in big trouble,” he writes.
He’s been kicked out of school again. He’s failed and disappointed his parents once more, and his odyssey through New York is fueled by guilt and contrition. In my reading he doesn’t go home after leaving Pencey because home is the problem. His real expulsion is from the family, not school, and his sojourn through New York renders that loss in literal terms: we see the resulting anomie, the thoroughness of his horror. Two very different engines drive the respective readings. In one, he’s ultimately headed home, in the other he has nowhere to go, and never will.
About the time after his own brother’s death, D’Ambrosio remembers: “I felt I had too much feeling to be myself. I felt attacked by my emotions, under siege, and the sensation, day after day, was like life had stuck to me.”
Part of the pleasure of reading Orphans the first time had to do with the idea of reading for pleasure: as a student of fiction, I didn’t have to worry, as I might have had the book been assigned, about passing some kind of test or formulating a pithy insight to impress my professor.
So much of our public discourse is similarly motivated: we share an abiding fear of appearing wrong. Not actually being wrong, mind you, but appearing to be so. This insecurity leads to the overemphatic bluster of our airwaves, homepages, and various social media feeds; millions of people desperate not to let their ignorance show.
Returning to these essays, seeing them contextualized with new work, I engaged in a different way. I noticed a doggedness that I’d missed before: ignorance is where D’Ambrosio, the writer, begins. Again and again, he asks more than one would expect — of his subjects, of himself, of the essay form. By the end, he’s gained — and shares — genuine insight about himself and the world. Maybe more of us should follow his example.