In ‘Up North’, the fourth story in The Dead Fish Museum, a man whose wife is having a string of affairs says, ‘Our marriage was like a constant halving of the distance, without ever arriving at the moment in time where, utterly familiar, I’d vanish’. In the collection’s final story, ‘The Bone Game’, a man comes across a crystal clear stream, but the fish, which the native Americans believe are their ancestors, are ‘thin and weak and mutilated, their flesh ripped and trailing from their bodies like rags’. Charles D’Ambrosio’s second short story collection is full of these inexorable equations: lives diminishing without fully disappearing.
One way of coming to terms with the diminishing returns is to accept that life is a pretty low-stakes deal. Tony, the narrator of ‘Blessing’, describes heavy misfortunes as ‘gyps’. He’s an insurance broker, so he knows all about hedging bets: ‘You expect a normal life, but wager against it.’ Boons aren’t of much consequence either; Tony’s wife, Meagan, an actress for whom parts are proving elusive, says, ‘I love you … At least there’s that’. In ‘The Scheme of Things’, Lance and Kirsten live off small amounts of money – ten bucks a pop – that they procure by posing as charity workers.
Of The Dead Fish Museum’s eight offerings, three are fishing stories and one is a hunting story. In ‘Up North’, a couple make their way from New York to a cabin in the snow for deer season. In ‘The High Divide’, two boys go on a fishing trip. The triangulation of life, death and nature is a classic configuration: a proven catalyst for unearthing family violence (‘Up North’), or a nation’s bloody history (‘The Bone Game’). But D’Ambrosio’s sensitivity to natural beauty makes the gambit worthwhile. Not only is the land tainted (in the title story, the ocean shore is awash with garbage), it is also promising and fecund, housing tulips in ‘a sea of red and yellow … rolling our way like a wave’.
Animals meet their ends quite readily in these stories, but for their human counterparts, life is a waiting room at best. Young Ignatius in ‘The High Divide’ watches his father sitting on the caged-in patio of St. Jude’s Hospital, his eyes like ‘blown fuses’. This sense of attenuated experience is intensified by the recurrence of details across the stories. In a García Márquez–like repetition of circumstances, the collection contains multiple failed actresses, guns, insurance workers and psychiatric hospital inpatients. This déja vu blurs the lines between tales, creating a spectrum of story in which the waiting never ceases – characters are reincarnated, waiting, in another purgatory.
D’Ambrosio’s prose is good, his dialogue great. ‘My life is so simple a one-year-old could live it,’ says the self-immolating ballerina in ‘Screenwriter’. Folksy vocabulary and unusual word choices enable him to nail character and description in a scant sentence. His dialogue and prose work together at their best in ‘Drummond & Son’, a study of the relationship between a typewriter vendor and his son. Drummond is patient, dignified, undemonstrative: ‘Sometimes your illness tells you things, Pete. You know that’. Yet twenty-five year old Pete is referred to as ‘the boy’ in the story’s prose, a protective tell construing his son’s interrupted life.
‘Half-life’ is a scientific term – a measure of the time it takes for a substance to halve in size or potency. It’s synonymous with decay, with deterioration, and thus with the consciousness that there’s only less to come. While the realism of The Dead Fish Museum is constructed with an eye to the compromised quality of its characters’ existence, it’s also anchored in the ‘strange becalmed moments’ of the outgoing tide. D’Ambrosio’s stories are portraits of humanity at the tail end of exponential decay, reminding us of the distinction between even a compromised life and silence.