Saturday, July 31, 2010

Short-a-Day: Charles D'Ambrosio's "The Dead Fish Museum"

Originally published in A Public Space 01, Spring 2006. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 86.

I'm not sure exactly what's going on in this character piece, and yet I found myself completely content while reading the story. The little details given for these three carpenters--Ramage, Rigoberto, and RB--hint at their worlds, and the way in which they just sort of slog through them, but it's all held very close to the chest. For instance, Ramage has been in a hospital, RB tells him "You used to be somebody else," and he carries a gun, carefully planning a suicide, yet never following through, even when he's totally drunk, as he often is. He's annoyed by children--he remembers moving a knife from one side of his plate to the other, so as to quell his sudden urge to stab a baby in the eye--and yet he cares for the abandoned baby in the hotel room next door when its parents are long since passed out. He's got ample opportunity to score with Desiree, the porn star for whom he's building sets, and yet, he passes by. And he steals from the local grocery, but for no reason (feeling deeply ashamed of himself, too), but doesn't skip out on his hotel bill, though his reckless neighbors do.

There's so much left blank--even more for his two assistants--that the story almost feels like it's tricked us into thinking it's better than it is, and D'Ambrosio's metaphors--while pretty--don't always match the text. ("She let her hair loose from its hard lapidary style, and an archeology of treatments showed, strata of blonde and silver, a bedrock of dark brown at the roots.") But because D'Ambrosio constantly maintains this "off season" mood, sticks with the stunted lack of emotion--even the big fight scene between Rigo and RB is passively described ("Rigo reached for RB's mouth as if to stop the flow of words, smashing it shut")--it manages to stand on its own. These are lost people, either emotionally (like Ramage), nationally (Rigo's an immigrant--probably illegal: "To what, Ramish--to what?"), or physically (RB, who is black, sees racism everywhere, even when he himself provokes people with his aggression), and it's no mistake that D'Ambrosio puts them on a movie set--and not even a proper movie set, but a porn set.

D'Ambrosio breaks a few dramatic "rules," in that the gun Ramage reveals never goes off and that, consequently, there's no climax and catharsis, but then again, he's more interested in simply showing the world as it is. Another intentional choice is to put the town adjacent to a spice plant, so every day smells rich and beautiful, even if--at the same time--they're boarding up windows, walking through slums, and silently suffering, suffering, suffering. At the very least, setting aside the author's great ear for descriptive language, these are three pretty original characters, so whether you're on board with the story's non-choices or not, I can't fault this slice of life.

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