Loitering: New and Collected Essays

By Charles D’Ambrosio

(Tin House, $15.95, 368 pages)

Who is this author?

Charles D’Ambrosio, a great writer who teaches aspiring writers about good writing, has published two short story collections, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist,  and the essay collection Orphans. His literary honors include a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Lannan Fellowship, and his work frequently appears in The New Yorker, Tin House, The Paris Review, Zoetrope All-Story and A Public Space. D’Ambrosio grew up in Seattle and now teaches at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop.

What is this book about?

Loitering, which was published last fall, made NPR’s 2014 Best of the Year list and the Pacific Northwest Bestseller List, and it was named one of the Top Ten Books of the Year by Time Out New York. While D’Ambrosio is known as an excellent writer of short stories, he also wins generous praise as an essayist, writing in a genre that combines the personal with serious reportage. Loitering combines 11 original essays from his collection Orphans, a book that earned him a cult-like following, with new and uncollected essays. His subject matter is nothing if not eclectic: hunting whales with Native Americans; J.D. Salinger’s writing; a Pentecostal “hell house;” Mary Kay Letourneau (the teacher who fell in love with her 13-year-old student)  and his own family. What binds these disparate subjects together is his original voice and perspective: clever, compassionate, compelling.

Why you’ll like it:

D’Ambrosio has been credited with the rare ability  to write “understated realism.” He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, and in an interview with him written for that magazine by essayist Leslie Jamison, she says:

“In these essays he is hard on easy answers and false resolution because he believes in what lies beyond them.  With this book, I felt like shaking strangers in the street and saying, Read these essays; they will move you.”

Here are some of his thoughts on writing essays, from that interview:

“. . . that figure on the threshold seems to be standing around in quite a few of these essays. It’s a little spooky to realize how porous the personality is in writing, porous or just plain incontinent, leaking out everywhere, so that things get revealed even when—or especially when—you haven’t given them much conscious thought. It’s a good reminder that you don’t have to indulge in a goopy confessional mode to write a personal essay—you’re more mysterious than you know, more naked than you imagine, and whether you intend it or not you’re going to be exposed.

“I don’t deliberately seek out that threshold or the ambivalence it offers, but the fact that I return to it over and over suggests that it isn’t entirely innocent, either. I mean, I must go there for a reason, but why? I was a vigilant kid, and vigilance as a perspective on life depends on distance, a certain remove. You’re always kind of there and not there, sitting in the room but also watching the room, alert to some other, less innocent possibility. That distance feels safe, but it also stirs up the most intense feelings of loss and longing, the dream of making the distance go away, of ditching the divided self and all its tensions and simply being there—you know, just crossing that threshold and coming inside, coming home. But it’s hard to do, hard for me to do, anyway. . .

“I can’t imagine absenting myself from the story. It’s not possible, so I don’t waste my time. I’m there, I’m witnessing, I’m thinking, I’m struggling to understand, I’m making connections or failing to make connections, I’m excited by errors that then, somehow, usher in a little truth, and all of that influences, distorts, and colors the material.

“Sometimes my role in the essay is simply presented as it happens—the narrative action is just the random intersection of my life, whatever that’s about at the time, with the story, whatever that may be.”

What others are saying:

In The New York Times Book Review , author Phillip Lopate says: “D’Ambrosio has also published two fine collections of short stories, but it is his essays, appearing in literary magazines and previously in an obscure small-press edition, that have been garnering a cult reputation. Now that they are gathered in such a generous collection, we can see he is one of the strongest, smartest and most literate essayists practicing today…These are highly polished, finished, exemplary performances.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “This powerful collection (11 essays from Ophans, plus new and uncollected work) highlights D’Ambrosio’s ability to mine his personal history for painful truths about the frailty of family and the strange quest to understand oneself, and in turn, be understood. In his strongest essays, including an account of a trip to a Russian orphanage, a reminiscence of hopping freight trains, and wrenching family stories, he avoids pathos and uses telling detail to get at some larger truths. In an essay on J.D. Salinger’s short stories, D’Ambrosio (also known for his fiction) writes about the suicide of his youngest brother. In a Russian orphanage, he talks with children who will have a hard road ahead, and conveys that he, too, is making his way in a world full of holes, gaps, and scars. In his graceful essay on poet Richard Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” he observes that in a life that’s been broken “we know these things happen, and we don’t… know why.” Without an easy solution, he observes that “answers are as foolish and transient as we are” and challenges writers and readers to “approach the unanswerable,” which he himself does here, to great effect. “

Kirkus Reviews says:  “An essayist and short story writer returns with a collection of pieces ranging in subject from whaling to a Russian orphanage to J.D. Salinger. D’Ambrosio begins with some thoughts about what an essay is (he views it as a way to figure out what he thinks) and then launches into his thoughtful and provocative essays, revealing a hungry mind and a pervasive, constitutional sadness. In the first essay, the author deals with his attempts as a young man to leave his boyhood home of Seattle, and he introduces some of the darkness (geographical and personal) that inhabits the other essays. Among the topics that he revisits throughout: suicide (attempts in his family, a leaper from a tower on 9/11), the puzzling aspects of experience (just about everything—from decrepit buildings to empty streets; the view from a boxcar he hopped), the fragility of family (his father appears continually), and the abuse of language. He goes off on the prosecutor and the press coverage of the 1998 case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a 35-year-old teacher convicted of having sexual relations with a 13-year-old boy (a former student). D’Ambrosio closely examines the language of the courtroom and the useless indignation that infused much of the press coverage. He considers the vastness of love, and he explores the language of Richard Brautigan, whose prose he does not admire. The author ends with a long disquisition on a poem by Richard Hugo (which and whom he admires). A couple of cavils: It would help curious readers to have publication dates on the pieces somewhere, and although the author chides one of his interview subjects for excessively inflated diction, D’Ambrosio, using words like “emunctory,” “gallionic” and “prodromal,” will send many readers to the dictionary apps on their smart phones. Erudite essays that plumb the hearts of many contemporary darknesses.”

When is it available?

Don’t loiter. Borrow this book from the Downtown Hartford Public Library soon.

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