I first came across the writing of Charles D’Ambrosio in the waiting room at Cornell Medical Hospital. I was sitting in one of those demoralizing paper-towel gowns, thumbing through an outdated copy of The New Yorker, when I came across a lengthy story called “Up North.” With some reluctance, I inched my way into D’Ambrosio’s icy, ashy world only to emerge a half an hour later transformed—my own world refreshed and enriched.
The story (first person/past tense) begins with the protagonist, Daly, and his wife, Caroline, driving North to visit her parents in their remote, winter cabin. There, we’re introduced to the rest of the cast—the in-laws, their friends, one of whom, we do not know which, may have raped Caroline a decade prior. Caroline has hidden the truth from her beloved father to spare him the agony, but her continued silence has bred its own agony, a poisonous secret that rears itself in other, destructive ways.
Having read her diary, Daly is aware that his wife has been having affairs; indiscretions about which he must remain as tight-lipped as she, lest he reveal that he’s violated her privacy. Perhaps as a result of her assault, she has been and remains unable to equate sex with love. The paradox of their relationship, then, is that each day, “I lost more and more of my status as a stranger, and our marriage was like a constant halving of the distance without ever arriving at the moment in time when, utterly familiar, I’d vanish.”
Daly’s disclosures are similarly frank: “In defeat I came to feel weak and ashamed,” and amplified through his observations, each a sour reminder of something from the past, not completely gone. The taxidermy flanking the fireplace “suggested souvenirs from some gone, legendary time;” the sweater Caroline borrows from her father retains its girth, “a ghostly, orotund presence in the stiff wool.” Does this imply, perhaps, a pregnancy?
The major events in the story, however, are actually non-events. The first is the hunt. Daly, who finds it “effortful” to be around men with weapons, accompanies the grunting old-timers into the snowy woods to claim their nightly feast, only, when he gets the bird in his crosshairs, he squeezes the trigger to discover that the safety catch has vetoed the shot. Who could forget such a pungent image of impotence?
The second is the feast itself, whose awkwardness is intensified by the fact that Daly is struggling to hear the dialogue through the ringing in his ears, the auditory aftershock of his neighbor’s shotgun. All the while, a mirror in the corner of the dining room is canted in such a way as to reflect everyone but the narrator.
What is clear by the end is that D’Ambrosio is not a dramatist but a holder of oblique mirrors himself, a painter of haunting portraits. Drama, to paraphrase Aristotle, is a sequence of escalating power shifts—events which challenge its characters to make decisions that, in turn, alter the course of future events. Rather, D’Ambrosio feeds us a timeline whose constituent moments form a single snapshot indicative of things as they are. There are no revelations or catharses, simply a masterful rendering of an excruciating silence, the waterlogged weight of unspoken things, which press upon the apparently humdrum present with a dreadful and mighty force, forever unrelieved, unresolved.
But even this doesn’t capture what it is that makes “Up North” extraordinary. There’s something musical about the particular network of contrasts—the muffled, protected cabin vs. the expansive, perilous outdoors—something deliciously peculiar in the laid-backness of the language, his words crisp and exact. At the same time, D’Ambrosio is careful not to tip his hand: his virtuosity is subtle, unassuming and tempered, not ecstatic and splendiferous like Nabokov’s.
I later wondered if perhaps I was too quick to trust him. That in my enfeebled state, sitting there apprehensive and barely clothed in that cold hospital waiting room, I’d allowed a certain obsequiousness to color my impression of the work. Shortly thereafter I picked up a copy of D’Ambrosio’s debut collection, The Dead Fish Museum (in which “Up North” is collected), and was struck to discover the same level of power and precision, the same faint irony and sober lament woven into each piece.
Someone recently told me that, for all its beauty, she couldn’t get through the book because it was too depressing. All due respect, this person was not reading. She was simply taking the D’Ambrosio world at face value—mental hospitals and recovery wards, failing businesses, porno sets—a world which, on the surface, appears to resemble that of William Vollman. But in comparison, Vollman buckles. His bleakness is a fey spectacle, which bullies its readers into a pre-fab discomfort.
Rather, D’Ambrosio does a far harder thing, which is to achieve compassion without sentiment, yearning without nostalgia, understatement without self-consciousness, and in doing so succeeds at everything Vollman fails at.
I doff my hat.