The Dead Fish Museum Stories
by Charles D'Ambrosio
Knopf, 256 pp., $22
I FIRST CAME ACROSS Charles D'Ambrosio's fiction when reviewing The Best American Short Stories 2004, a book that one excitable critic praised as featuring the "heavy hitters" of contemporary literature.
Well, the only heavy hitting I can recall was my chin falling to my chest as the generally humorless fiction collected there lulled me to sleep. But D'Ambrosio's contribution to the book, the marvelous story "Screenwriter," was different from the others: funny, engaging, superbly crafted. It is also one of the standout works of his new story collection, The Dead Fish Museum, which follows on his 1995 debut, The Point.
Eight stories make up The Dead Fish Museum, six of which originally appeared in the New Yorker. But "Screenwriter" is the most representative of D'Ambrosio's fiction: Its hilarity despite dark subject matter, its highly original prose style, and its treatment of a man struggling to maintain sanity (a theme of many of the stories collected here) are all typical of Charles D'Ambrosio.
"Screenwriter" begins with an irresistibly funny question: "How was I supposed to know that any mention of suicide to the phalanx of doctors making Friday rounds would warrant the loss of not only weekend-pass privileges but also the liberty to take a leak in private?" The question is asked by the unnamed narrator, who we learn is a rich and immensely successful Hollywood screenwriter. Yet something has gone very wrong in his life: His producer-wife has left him for the star of his latest film, and recent thoughts of suicide have obsessed him to the point where he's checked himself into the psychiatric ward of a New York hospital.
Many writers would make such a character gloomy, maybe even a bit pathetic. Not D'Ambrosio. Indeed, his screenwriter announces early on: "I'm not whining--I'm not one of those whiners," and treats us to a hilarious portrait of the psych ward. Asking an older patient named Carmen for a match, the screenwriter gets treated to a monologue on the woman's lifelong misfortunes. Remembering conversations with other patients, he observes: "Illness was our lingua franca. Patients announced their worst infirmities right off, but no one dared talk about normal life. Oh, no--that was shameful and embarrassing, a botch you didn't bring up in polite conversation."
It is just this concern with other characters and their problems that saves the story from looking inward and growing self-involved. The unreality of Hollywood life has given the screenwriter a deep need for the real and truthful, and he finds it in another resident of the psych ward, a ballerina who's obsessed with burning herself. D'Ambrosio's prose in describing her is among the best in the book, and shows his talent for surprising, imaginative turns of phrase:
Her nose was fat and fruitlike, a nose for pratfalls and slapstick, not jetés and pirouettes and pliés and whatnot. But her lips were lovely, the color of cold meat, and her eyes sunk deep in their sockets, were clear blue. When you looked into them, you half-expected to see fish swimming around at the back of her head, shy ones.
"Screenwriter" is not the only first-rate work in this collection, however. It begins with the brilliant "The High Divide," which recounts a friendship between a troubled young orphan named Ignatius and his well-off counterpart, Donny. At first it seems the boys have nothing in common: Ignatius lives in a Catholic orphanage, his psychotic father wasting away in a nearby hospital, while Donny's wealthy family is a picture of happiness.
But when Donny's father invites the boys to go hiking in the Pacific Northwest, the illusion of happiness is shattered: Donny's father confesses that he's seeing another woman, has decided to divorce Donny's mother, is under immense psychological strain, and suddenly Donny is forced to live through the same painful emotions his orphan friend has endured.
The title story, "The Dead Fish Museum," is equally compelling. A carpenter named Ramage, who once had ambitions of being a filmmaker, is in need of cash and agrees to build the set of a porn movie with two other workers, one black and the other an immigrant from El Salvador. The story, rife with racial and sexual tension, introduces a third conflict when we learn that Ramage has been carrying a loaded handgun in his tool sack and has been planning to shoot himself ("The gun was his constant adversary, like a drug, a deep secret that he kept from others, but it was also his passion, a theater where he poured out his lonely ardor"). The story moves uneasily toward a resolution as the set is built and the movie shot.