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Saturday, March 19th, 2005


Orphans: Essays

by Charles D'Ambrosio

A review by Jill Owens

Charles D'Ambrosio's essays are excitingly good. They are good and relevant in the way that makes you read sections out loud -- to your boyfriend who's trying to read his own book; to three of your friends in a pitch-dark bar, squinting in the light of a pathetic candle; to your sister on the East Coast who's trying to tell you about her new job. To D'Ambrosio's great credit, although each of these people may have been initially irritated at the uninvited interruption of their respective good times, they all also professed an immediate desire to pick up Orphans for themselves.

Clear Cut Press, a small press out of Astoria, Oregon, published Orphans, which is worth mentioning because the book's design is so lovely. It's a very small paperback with a dust jacket and an attached ribbon bookmark, and its size is perfectly portable -- you really can put it in your pocket or your purse, no matter how small. All the better to pull out at a moment's notice.

D'Ambrosio writes for the Stranger, a Seattle weekly which has had a number of strong writers, and many of these essays first appeared there, as well as a couple in Harper's and the New Yorker. Their subjects include Hell House, a Christian haunted house in Texas designed for conversion; Mary Kay LeTourneau (at the time of her trial); whaling rights for the Makahs in Alaska; his brother's suicide; and the title piece, about life in a Russian orphanage.

These essays do what good essays should do -- they migrate from the overt situation to personal extrapolation to the larger cultural or artistic or philosophical implications of the subject at hand. As such, they have a timeless quality about them; they have ethos, logos, and pathos to spare. However, they move, charmingly, more like poems than like essays (poetry and poetics are frequently topics of allusion or discussion within them -- the last essay takes as its starting point a poem by Richard Hugo about Phillipsburg, Montana, a nearly abandoned Western mining town). Like poems, they begin with an explicit subject, usually sharply and wittily detailed, and then sweep out and around that idea, tracing concentric circles larger and larger until nearly the whole world is encompassed in a discussion of, say, a particular domestic violence case in Seattle one rainy night.

The pleasure of these essays is therefore inextricably bound up with D'Ambrosio's voice, as he is always both participant and subject. His voice is eminently likable; he reminds you of your most unusual and empathetic friends. You want to call him up and invite him for a walk or a drink, to keep the conversation going. One essay includes the poetic term "meiosis" (a kind of rhetorical understatement); another utilizes "rock-butt" (pretty much what it sounds like, after sitting in a courtroom too long). Absolutely accessible and incredibly intelligent, D'Ambrosio is equally at ease with sociolinguistics as he is with the urge to "fuck the clean away" from a brand-new modular home. In a strange way, it's an astounding relief -- as though someone is finally trying to puzzle all the disparate, desperate pieces of the world together again.

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