D'Ambrosio, Charles 1960–
D'Ambrosio, Charles 1960–
PERSONAL: Born 1960, in Seattle, WA; married. Education: Graduated from the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
ADDRESSES: Home—Portland, OR.
CAREER: Freelance writer. University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, visiting professor, 2006.
AWARDS, HONORS: "The Point" included in Best American Short Stories, 1991; Aga Khan Fiction Prize, 1993, from the Paris Review; finalist in the first fiction category, 1995, Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, for The Point; "Screenwriter" included in Best American Short Stories, 2004; O. Henry Prize, 2005, for the short story "The High Divide." James Michener Fellowship; Pushcart Prize; Henfield/TransAtlantic Review Award.
The Point: Stories (short stories; contains "The Point," "Her Real Name," "American Bullfrog," "Jacinta," "All Aboard," "Lyricism," and "Open House"), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1995.
Orphans (essays), Clear Cut Press (Astoria, OR), 2004.
(Author of introduction) Cooking and Stealing: The Tin House Nonfiction Reader, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2004.
The Dead Fish Museum (stories), Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2006.
Also contributor of stories and essays to anthologies and periodicals, including Best American Short Stories, 1991 and 2004; New Yorker, Stranger and Paris Review. The Point has been translated into French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, and Japanese.
SIDELIGHTS: Fiction writer and graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop Charles D'Ambrosio had one of his tales published in 1991's Best American Short Stories. Another garnered him the 1993 Aga Khan Fiction Prize from the Paris Review before his first collection of stories, The Point: Stories, was published in 1995. The Point has been widely acclaimed and has itself won another honor for D'Ambrosio—the book was a finalist in the first fiction category of 1995's Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.
The title tale of The Point was first published in the New Yorker, and later reprinted in Best American Short Stories. Its protagonist, Kurt Pittman, has lost his father to suicide. His mother, though still living, has become a hopeless alcoholic since her husband took his own life. She throws huge parties for other men and women who like to escape their relationship problems by getting drunk, and Kurt's function at these soirees is to escort overindulgent guests safely home. He listens to their troubles, and they often reward him with a few dollars. "I suppose it was better than a paper route," he says, during the course of his narration. Kurt's work for the particular evening of the story is shepherding home Mrs. Gurney, whose husband is cheating on her. The "point" of the story's title, which he has learned from listening to his mother's needy circle, in Kurt's words, is that "at a certain age, a black hole emerged in the middle of your life, and everything got sucked into it, and you knew, forever afterward, that it was there … and you pretended it wasn't there and never looked directly at it, if you could manage the trick." Later in the story, Kurt reveals that he was the one who discovered his father's body after he had shot himself.
"Like 'The Point,'" asserted James McManus in the New York Times Book Review, "the six other stories in Mr. D'Ambrosio's collection are shapely and satisfying. The emotional territory he covers is familiar—a world of lapsed Catholics, of estranged married couples, of too-early death—but he consistently manages to isolate moments of understated splendor, to take unexpected angles on his characters' grief and desire." "Her Real Name" concerns a terminally-ill girl who flees her religiously strict father with a soldier; "Jacinta" covers the disintegration of a marriage after the death of a child; and "All Aboard" uses a galley ship rowed by slaves as a metaphor for a Catholic funeral. Erin McGraw, critiquing the fiction collection in the Georgia Review, offered these words of praise: "D'Ambrosio isn't afraid of letting humor seep into his stories about grief, meanness mix with innocence, farce play out in one ring while tragedy occurs in the next." She went on to remark that "D'Ambrosio fills his stories with shifting currents and angles of light, and the tragedies that sit at their centers are partially obscured by ordinary, daily, fussy life—cleaning up houses and buying newspapers. The tragedies are no less real and no less acknowledged, but the newly clean houses are real too, and the newspapers, and everything modifies everything else." Leigh Allison Wilson, reviewing The Point in the Washington Post Book World, concluded: "Whether he's writing about a marriage gone off the tracks because of the death of a friend, the death of a child, or about a family blown apart by madness and suicide, at the heart of Charles D'Ambrosio's stories is the lolling, seductive possibility of hope, of clarity, of a perfect moment."
D'Ambrosio brought out his first essay collection, Orphans, in 2004. As Dan Wickett noted in Emerging Writers Forum, the essays in this collection cover a wide variety of interests: "whales and Eskimos, manufactured homes, a Pentecostal haunted house, Russian orphanages, the pre-Starbucks/Seattle of [D'Ambrosio's] childhood, the poetry of Richard Hugo, and the Mary Kay Letourneau trial." Publication of the collection could provide the material for an essay in itself, for D'Ambrosio chose to publish with friends who operate a small press in Astoria, Oregon, in a subscription series, while at the same time publishing a trade hardback edition with the New York firm of Alfred A. Knopf. However, as it transpired, the subscription model was changed and the small press published a standard edition; D'Ambrosio reluctantly had to pull his contract with Knopf. D'Ambrosio told Wickett: "I lost a lot, publishing with a small press. I thought I was doing them a favor, I thought I was being nice, but really I was just being stupid." Though not widely distributed, Orphans did gain critical praise. Booklist contributor Donna Seaman called the collection "zesty and piercing,… finely crafted works that are at once lush and direct, brainy and full of feeling." Similarly, a Publishers Weekly critic found the same collection "excellent," and concluded: "D'Ambrosio's perceptive insistence on the primacy of the individual's voice and viewpoint sounds a resolutely humanistic tone."
D'Ambrosio returned to the short story for his 2006 collection, The Dead Fish Museum, several stories of which had appeared in the New Yorker. A Kirkus Reviews critic described the overall theme of the work: "The mysteries of family run deep in this unsettling collection of stories about blood ties that bind, unravel and strangle." Writing in the Willamette Week Online, Karla Starr similarly noted that "hopelessness, desperation and vacant bleakness blanket the lives of the characters" in the The Dead Fish Museum. However, such bleakness does not overwhelm these characters or the stories. Stephen Barbara, writing in the Weekly Standard, observed, for example, that in the tale "Screenwriter," D'Ambrosio's "concern with other characters and their problems … saves the story from looking inward and growing self-involved." Similarly, Gregory Kirschling noted in Entertainment Weekly that while the stories and characters in the collection were not necessarily happy or cheerful, still D'Ambrosio's "singing prose … usually finds the pearl in the mud." Further praise came from a Publishers Weekly contributor who called the stories "gemlike," concluding, "D'Ambrosio's dark, intense prose drives these stories like coffin nails."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
D'Ambrosio, Charles, The Point: Stories, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1995.
Booklist, February 15, 1995, Alice Joyce, review of The Point, p. 1057; December 1, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of Orphans, p. 626.
Entertainment Weekly, April 1, 2006, Gregory Kirschling, review of The Dead Fish Museum, p. 78.
Georgia Review, winter, 1995, Erin McGraw, review of The Point, pp. 950-959.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2006, review of The Dead Fish Museum, p. 197.
New York Times Book Review, February 26, 1995, James McManus, review of The Point, p. 8.
Publishers Weekly, January 2, 1995, review of The Point, p. 59; August 30, 2004, review of Cooking and Stealing: The Tin House Nonfiction Reader, p. 45; November 22, 2004, review of Orphans, p. 52; February 13, 2006, review of The Dead Fish Museum, p. 63.
Studies in Short Fiction, summer, 1996, Peter Donahue, review of The Point, p. 430.
Washington Post Book World, April 16, 1995, Leigh Allison Wilson, review of The Point, p. 11.
Weekly Standard, July 3, 2006, Stephen Barbara, "Crazy Funny," review of The Dead Fish Museum.
Book Slut, http://www.bookslut.com/ (October 16, 2006), Pauls Toutonghi, "An Interview with Charles D'Ambrosio," Carrie Jones, review of The Dead Fish Museum.
Emerging Writers Forum, http://www.breaktech.net/emergingwritersforum/ (April 18, 2005), Dan Wickett, "Interview with Charles D'Ambrosio."
Portland Mercury, http://www.portlandmercury.com/ (May 11-17, 2006), Justin W. Sanders, review of The Dead Fish Museum.
Powells.com, http://www.powells.com/ (May 16, 2006), Dave Weich, "Hop on the Charles D'Ambrosio Train."
Willamette Week Online, http://www.wweek.com/ (May 10, 2006), Karla Starr, "The Tragically Happy Life of Charles D'Ambrosio."