Saving Doubts

Loitering: New and Collected Essays BY Charles D'Ambrosio. Tin House Books. Paperback, 280 pages. $15.

The cover of Loitering: New and Collected Essays

There are two versions of Charles D’Ambrosio running through this important essay collection, the first book to appear from the noted short-story writer since 2006. First, there’s literary journalist D’Ambrosio, whose job it is to visit peculiar places like hell houses, modular homes, and petty-crime scenes and have thoughts about them that are probably more interesting than they deserve. You don’t really care, reading this D’Ambrosio, how he got to be this thoughtful, conscientious, erudite, and so forth—you’re just glad he did. Second, there’s the D’Ambrosio who, across several essays, goes ahead and tells the story of how he got that way. He incubated his aesthetic sensibility in an intellectual womb haunted by a perverse Willy Loman of a patriarch and two brothers who attempted suicide. (Only one succeeded.) And it turns out this is a story you want to hear after all—quite badly, in fact.

Even though the essays here are divided into thematic sections, the feel of the book that emerges as the two D’Ambrosios converge is something like the impact of a powerful memoir: It recounts how one of the most profound essayists at work today found his vision, while presenting a selection of what his broad range of experiences has led him to believe about our world, our nature, and our literature.

There’s an interesting backstory to Loitering, as well. About ten years ago, D’Ambrosio published a collection of nonfiction pieces called Orphans with the little-known Clear Cut Press. Even though Orphans reprinted work that had first appeared in the New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine, not many readers knew of D’Ambrosio’s nonfiction; most of it originally appeared in more local venues like Seattle’s The Stranger and the interesting but short-lived magazine Nest. But if you were following D’Ambrosio’s career closely, you couldn’t help but notice that the right people seemed to know about Orphans. It was a handsome little paperback, about the size of a wallet, with one of those little bookmark ribbons attached to its spine to suggest that you wouldn’t just read this volume but study it. For a few years there, once the first run sold out and no more printings were forthcoming, Orphans was like a piece of street art or samizdat: It was rare, and even knowing it existed made you serious.

So now, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that if you want a copy of Orphans, you’ll have to shell out, because it’s already a rare book. The good news is that Orphans is reprinted in its entirety in Loitering, along with a hundred or so additional pages of the same kind of material, which renders Loitering the more complete vision that Orphans, for all its charms, should have been.

The ostensible subjects vary widely—from a journey west to metaphorically chew on whale meat to a journey east to mull the plight of a Russian orphanage. However, what’s most compelling here is not the exotic locations but themes that repeat regardless of context: falling, our flawed selves, phoniness, suicide, journalism, the body, friendship, humor, Seattle, family, the West, and the essay form itself. “A good essay seemed to question itself in a way that a novel or short story did not,” D’Ambrosio writes in the preface of his earliest education in the form. And then, reflecting on his contributions: “What I’ve collected here, of course, are just a bunch of scrappy incondite essays, not prayers, but behind each piece, animating every attempt, was the echo of a precarious faith, that we are more intimately bound to one another by our kindred doubts than our brave conclusions.” This is a pretty conclusive statement about the importance of inconclusiveness, but what makes it work is that it comes from a sensibility willing to question itself, to be exuberantly wrong.

There’s a steady stream of breathtaking aphorisms and similes here, but I’m not going to quote any of them—stripping an aphorism or simile from its context is like quoting the punch line of a joke to prove it’s funny. You’ll just have to go find them yourself. I realize I’m being a bit fawning, so let me allow that a reader or two might grow weary of D’Ambrosio’s tendency to use obscure words. I would argue that D’Ambrosio is not simply trying to batter us with a fat purse of fifty-centers; he’s taking classical advice to employ both high and low language.

Similarly, some may question such a vast and robust intellect’s impulse toward self-deprecation (for example, “Seattle, 1974” decries itself as a “brief superficial essay”; actually, it’s efficient and profound), but condemning the book on this point misses the mission statement that D’Ambrosio distills from Didion, Sontag, Orwell, and Baldwin: “Something in the nature of the personal essay must have instructed me and informed this pattern . . . the voice holding steady in the face of doubt, the flawed man revealing his flaws.”

The best pieces here, to my ear, are the essays on literature, from which a kind of autobiography emerges. “Salinger and Sobs” aligns D’Ambrosio’s early life with that of the Glass children and offers as interesting a take on our most mysterious writer as I’ve read. “Doo-Wop Down the Road: Richard Brautigan” seems to recount a middle period in D’Ambrosio’s career, as his wisdom simmered and stewed: “Brautigan’s failures make sense. I would say they are the soul of his writing, its chief draw. Failure is where his writing lives.” And “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” is a chronicle of both Richard Hugo’s poem of the same name and the emotional breakdown that sent D’Ambrosio scurrying back not only to the poet but to the Montana town that inspired the poem: D’Ambrosio lived in Philipsburg for several years.

Hugo is another repeating subject in this necessary book, which brims with doubt, fear, wisdom, and love. When D’Ambrosio’s “brief superficial essay” applauds Hugo’s self-description as “a wrong thing in a right world,” we should nod our heads in concert with the author, but note too that for Hugo, and D’Ambrosio as well, the real truth is the other way around.

J. C. Hallman is the author of several books, including B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, which will be published by Simon & Schuster in February.