Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D’Ambrosio








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Most of the eight short stories in the new collection by Charles D’Ambrosio, The Dead Fish Museum, have appeared in The New Yorker. The pleasure of reading them as a set is to appreciate the wide scope of D’Ambrosio’s talent, and to note a theme: no matter what our troubles may be, they could be worse. There’s a schadenfreude in many of the stories that will cause pleasure for those readers who are glad they don’t live the lives of the characters presented. There’s a universal humanity that D’Ambrosio captures in a controlled and low-key way that reinforces the reality that we create many of our own problems. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of the story titled, “Screenwriter,” pp. 47-50:



How was I supposed to know that any mention of suicide to the phalanx of doctors making Friday rounds would warrant the loss of not only weekend-pass privileges but also the lib­erty to take a leak in private? My first suicidal ideations occurred to me when I was ten, eleven, twelve, something like that, and by now I was habituated to them and dreams of hurt­ing myself (in the parlance of those places) formed a kind of lullaby I often used to rock myself to bed at night. I got into trouble when I told my p-doc I couldn’t fall asleep until I’d made myself comfortable by drawing the blankets over my head and imagining I was closing the lid of my coffin. In con­fessing to him, I was only trying to be honest and accurate, a good patient, deserving. But no dice: the head p-doc put me on Maximum Observation and immediately I was being trailed around by a sober ex-athlete who, introducing himself, put a fatherly hand on my shoulder and squeezed and told me not to worry, he was a screenwriter, too—not as successful or rich as me, sure, but a screenwriter nonetheless. He said that his name was Bob and he let it be known that he’d taken this position on the mental ward only to gather material for his next script. Half the reason I was in the ward was to get away from the movies, but my whole time with Bob I kept wondering, Is this, or that, or this or that, or this, or this, or this going to be in a movie? Everywhere I went, he went, creeping along a few sedate paces back in soft-soled shoes, a shadow that gave off a disturbing susurrus like the maddening sibilance settling dust must make to the ears of ants.


One morning I was lying on my mattress, flipping through women’s magazines, but after a while Bob started scratching his ankle, so I got up and went to the bathroom. Bob stood right behind me and in my state of excited self-consciousness the splashing of piss against the urinal cake was deafening, a cataract so loud it was like I’d managed, somehow, to urinate directly into my own ear. After that I watched a television show about a guy with massive arms but no legs climbing a mountain; with a system of pulleys and ropes he managed to belay himself up the slope like a load of bananas. He planted an American flag on the summit. This ruined man’s struggle and eventual triumph moved me; in fact I began to cry. To calm myself I listened to the languorous pick-pock of two heavily medicated patients thwacking a Ping-Pong ball in the rec room, but there was a final phut and then that unnerving nothing, nothing at all, and finally an attack of the fantods drove me out to the patio. Where I sat, Bob sat, and pretty soon the patio started making me crazy, too. Sitting still—just sitting!—was like an equestrian feat. But if I stood up, if I walked in circles, then Bob would have to stand up and walk in circles with me.


The patio was perched high above the FDR and the East River and caged in with chain-link fencing. Concrete benches were scattered around like cuttlebone, and there were pot­ted shrubs in each corner. Scavenging pigeons and seagulls flocked overhead, vaguely white and whirling in the wind. I crushed saltines in their cellophane packets and poured the crumbs in the lap of my paper gown and fed the pieces to the birds.


Bob said, “Are you gonna get better?”


I looked up from my lap and said, “This isn’t very interest­ing, is it?”


“I didn’t say that.”


“I know you want to write a movie. You’re looking for mate­rial. But this— It’s not a thriller, that’s for sure.”


“And it’s not a whodunit because, like, you’re not doing anything.”




A young woman known on the ward as the ballerina was danc­ing across the patio. By the way she kept her hair twisted into a prim, tight bun, and by her body, which seemed to have a memory separate from her mind, a strict memory of its own, you immediately guessed she was a dancer. Her grandparents were with her, two hunched-up people in colossal overcoats and tiny black shoes, people I assumed were immigrants or refugees, because their clothes were so out-of-date, like from the nineteenth century, and because, all bent over, they looked wary and vigilant, as though they were ducking. Lumpen, I kept thinking, or Lumpenproletariat—when I probably meant just plain lumpy. Every evening they came to visit their grand­daughter, and now they sat on a bench and watched as she swooped like a bird through the lengthening shadows. The old man smoked an unfiltered cigarette, working his tongue in a lizardy fashion to free the flecks of tobacco lodged in his teeth. The old lady sat with her knuckle-like face rapt, a Kleenex balled in her fist. She was crying for the beauty of her granddaughter, and in motion the girl was beautiful, she was ecstatic. She wore a sacklike standard-issue paper gown the same as me and she was barefoot. Her arms floated away from her body as though she were trying to balance a feather on the tip of each finger. Then she jumped around, modern and spasmodic, as if the whole point of dance were to leap free of your skin. She raced from one end of the patio to the other, flew up, twirling and soaring, clawing the fence with her fingers and setting the links to shiver. But as soon as her grandparents left, blam, the dance in her died. She went cataleptic.


I clapped, and said, “That was nice. Brava, brava. Bravis­sima!”


“Got a smoke?” she said.


I rose to hand her a cigarette and my lighter and to look into her strange blue eyes. “You’re really a good dancer,” I said.


“No I’m not,” she said.


Her voice had no affect and its deadness sat me right back down on the bench. She turned away and flicked the wheel of the lighter, cupping the cigarette out of the wind. A paper plate rolled as if chased, around and around the patio, like a child’s game without the child. A white moth fell like a flower petal from the sky, dropped through a link in the fence, and came to light on my hand. The cooling night wind raised goose­flesh on my arms, and a cloud of smoke ripped into the air. The girl’s gown was smoldering. A leading edge of orange flame was chewing up the hem. I rose from my seat to tell the ballerina she was on fire. The moth flew from my hand, a gust fanned the flames, there was a flash, and the girl ignited, lighting up like a paper lantern. She was cloaked in fire. The heat moved in waves across my face, and I had to squint against the brightness. The ballerina spread her arms and levitated, sur les pointes, leaving the patio as her legs, ass, and back emerged phoenix-like out of this paper chrysalis, rising up until finally the gown sloughed from her shoulders and sailed away, a tattered black ghost ascending in a column of smoke and ash, and she lowered back down, naked and white, standing there, pretty much unfazed, in first position.


The Dead Fish Museum can sit comfortably at one’s bedside, and provide the perfect end of day story for eight wonderful nights.


Steve Hopkins, June 26, 2006



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*    2006 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the July 2006 issue of Executive Times


URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Dead Fish Museum.htm


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