Hopelessness, desperation and vacant bleakness blanket the lives of the characters inhabiting Portlander Charles D'Ambrosio's new collection of short stories, The Dead Fish Museum. On the back cover, Michael Chabon calls them "lives that burn as dark and radiant as the prose style that conjures them, like the blackness at the center of a candle's flame."
And yet, since last year, our own bard of darkness has lived in a pink house.
Seattle-born D'Ambrosio himself recently wrote about this new abode in "Out of Disorder, Into Pink Vinyl" for The New York Times, in which he discussed his own conflicts with the definition of home, having previously lived in a motley assortment of places, including a used-furniture warehouse.
Of course, he omitted a few things from the essay, such as the inside of his new Northeast Portland digs—surprisingly clean and unsurprisingly full of books—which rests on the Ozzie and Harriet end of the spectrum. And while he made much in the story of his new wife Heather Larimer's band practice space, he failed to mention what must be his most treasured room: his own writing studio. Among the few decorations in the simple, wood-paneled space is a framed letter from George Plimpton, accepting one of D'Ambrosio's short stories for The Paris Review. The entrance is marked with his unframed diploma—crinkled and coffee-stained—from the Iowa Writers Workshop, the best creative-writing program in the country.
"I have it hanging there just in case anyone wonders what I'm doing in here. They're my credentials, just like you'd see at the dentist," he jokes of the place in which he spends four to five hours a day.
An admission of spending that much time writing raises this question: Why has the follow-up to his first collection, The Point and Other Stories, taken a decade to appear?
For starters, he did publish another book in the interim. Orphans: Essays, was released last year by Astoria-based Clear Cut Press, about which he says, "I have so little good to say about them I am refraining from saying anything."
Secondly, he has written another book that no one has seen in the meantime—a novel with the working title Train I Ride, which follows "three brothers riding freight trains." After securing a contract with Knopf and finishing the book, D'Ambrosio's own frustration with the product caused him to pull the contract.
"It was just devastating," he says. "With a novel, you are just inside this one world and you are committed to it. And I'd never done it before, and I got kind of messed up and thought I had to go a certain way.... It really turned me around for awhile." After that devastation came his return to familiar territory: the short story.
The stories in The Dead Fish Museum are neither neatly resolved nor two-dimensional—instead, they are masterfully tense moments that reveal lives in intersections, of people never meant to meet each other. In "The Scheme of Things," a pair of con artists encroach upon the life of a farming couple in Iowa; in "Screenwriter," a ballerina and a writer bond in a mental institution.
Despite the fact that his characters are set in self-destruct mode, D'Ambrosio in person is loquacious and good-natured. So, with his newfound love and his (currently) calm, vinyl-sided home base, why his work's remnant gloom?
"I think I tend to see the fiction as the working out of the biographical by the allegorical," he says. "For instance, in this collection here, I work really hard to break the umbilical tie to my own life, but everything begins in that."
D'Ambrosio has written about his personal history in his nonfiction before, including "Documents," which appeared in The New Yorker in 2002. The story chronicled his brother's suicide, his estranged relationship with his father, and his relationship with another brother, who has schizophrenia.
But for now, he has a home, which he is hoping will bring him the semblance of stability that finishing a novel requires.
"Part of [deciding on this home] was just this complete squareness of this house, you know. It appealed to me after having bopped around and lived in so many houses," the author says, smoking a cigarette in his kitchen. "It's nice to have a place where I'll be parked for a while. It's just so simple and makes sense."
But darkness—or at least, the gleeful prospect of tragedy—still lingers.
"[That's] the nice thing about being married," he says. "I have a place to keep my books until she throws me out."
Charles D'Ambrosio will read from The Dead Fish Museum