Bag of Broken Things
The Dead Fish MuseumCharles D'Ambrosio
(Knopf · hardcover · $22)
"You know your diagnosis," says one character to another in Charles D'Ambrosio's second story collection. "Fruit of the Loom IV," replies the narrator, sarcastically, "it doesn't matter." In other words, having something wrong with you doesn't mean you're special. "People were hospitalized when their feelings reached an acute phase," the narrator explains, "but if you eavesdropped on all the jabbering, all the lonely, late-night calls, the whole history of pain and madness fused into a single hum-drum story, without much drama. It went flat."
The challenge D'Ambrosio sets himself here is to take back all the amorphous suffering—all the things we think we know about the broken—and make it singular again. It's a grim task, but D'Ambrosio is such an elegant writer he can do this, supply wringing empathy from the cloth of everyday manias. In "Drummond & Son," a father and his schizophrenic son repair typewriters in Seattle (D'Ambrosio's hometown; he's now based in Portland). Most of the customers, being writers, are desperate to get their machines to work—but when they get them back, all shiny and perfectly oiled, they miss what made them squeak.
Characters in these eight stories distrust the unblemished, the keenly wrought. "It was perfect," says a damaged man in the dark title story, skeptically regarding an apple, "but too far away to eat." In "The High Divide," a boy sent to an orphanage by his crazy father takes up with a spoiled kid, only to learn the largesse his new friend enjoys comes as a result of impending divorce. Suddenly the narrator feels grateful for his father's chaos—at least it's sincere. All gifts come tainted in this collection, each legacy containing its own pathology. As a result, the grace notes sound true—clear, unexpected, the kind of thing that might keep you sane just a while longer.