The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D'Ambrosio
Charles D’Ambrosio’s The Dead Fish Museum is composed of eight stories, each one chronicling a tale of a frustrated search. The characters are looking for something they lost, or worse, never had, which makes for a downbeat collection. A downbeat book can of course still be a beautiful and worthwhile one, but, with the exception of a few stories, The Dead Fish Museum is a repetitive and surprisingly dull read for a work that includes some amazingly elegant parts.
Each story includes one or more of these elements: a stay in a mental hospital, failure in the film industry, or lost sons. D’Ambrosio is excellent at setting up compelling situations, but his main characters fail to deliver the kind of singularity that would fully exploit such rich story environments. In fact, the supporting characters are usually more exciting than the main ones. It is frustrating to want to read more about the anachronistic writer than the typewriter repairman and his uncommunicative son in “Drummond & Son,” or about a shiftless brother’s military bride in “Blessing.” These characters nag the mind long after the main narrative is done, forcing their way into the places where the story should burrow in.
In one of the book’s flatter examples, “Screenwriter,” D’Ambrosio tells the story of a suicidal man in a mental ward and his affair with another self-destructive patient. The first time the undone screenwriter meets the ballerina, as she’s called, she lights herself on fire. The second time, she grinds their shared cigarette out into her thigh as a response to a compliment. Their affair cumulates in a lust-free smorgasbord of drug-fueled banter and self-harm that drags on the page. From the moment the ballerina is introduced, we know exactly what is going to happen. In the last paragraph of the story, the writer says this about his highly anticipated encounter: “I checked my watch. It was midnight on the nose and all that awaited me back at the p-ward was another morning and a long walk down a putty-colored corridor and, at the end of it, a paper cup full of pills. And in a month or a year the ballerina would touch a scar on her breast and tell a rather pointless story about a screenwriter she met in a psych ward.” The dead end of his juvenile infatuation leaves him, and the reader, tired and sort of bored, without lending any depth to the rote tale of the disappointing taste of forbidden fruit.
On the other end of the spectrum is “The Scheme of Things.” Here, the common threads of The Dead Fish Museum are subtly woven through a quietly surprising tale and we are given a complex and intriguing main character in Kirsten, a young hustler partnered in a con with a greasy, luckless loser. D’Ambrosio steps away from his tired men and crazy, wandering women and gives us a character that is just at the beginning of her journey, even after an already tumultuous life. It’s not hope exactly that stirs from this dusty Midwest tale, but it gives a little more than most of the other stories because the end of Kirsten’s road is not clearly in sight.
There are no heroes, only survivors in The Dead Fish Museum. There is not much to hold onto when the last page is turned. All warmth is leeched out of the collection, and even when D’Ambrosio hits on a perfect description of a fleeting feeling or moment, the drama gets splashed in a pale light of fatigue that washes out any impact the stories could have had.
The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D’Ambrosio
Alfred A. Knopf