A review of

The Dead Fish Museum

by Charles D’Ambrosio

Central question: How big can a short story be?
Format: 234 pp., cloth; Size: 5 ½" x 8 ¼"; Price: $22.00; Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf; Book designer: M. Kristen Bearse; Typeface: Apollo; Years since last book of stories, The Point, was published: Ten; Percent of stories from this book originally published in the New Yorker: Seventy-five; Some of the subjects in Orphans, the author’s 1997 collection of essays: Eskimos, whales, Mary Kay Letourneau, the Seattle of his childhood; Representative sentence: “It was hard to imagine what exhaustion, what wasting away of power, would bring the orgy to an end.”

The stories in Charles D’Ambrosio’s new collection, The Dead Fish Museum, often take place on the roads, in the campsites, or in the motels of the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. They also frequently occur in places where things aren’t right psychologically—difficult places in difficult lives, where the situations are serious, even grave.

In “Up North,” a young husband goes hunting with his father-in-law and a couple of his father-in-law’s friends, one of whom, we don’t know who, raped his wife when she was a teenager. “She wouldn’t talk about it, except to say that the truth would kill her father.” In “The High Divide,” a boy finds himself living in a Catholic orphanage because his father has gone mad after a car accident in which his mother died; he is invited on a camping trip by a pudgy friend named Donald whose own father is about to lower an emotional boom: “Donald, Mr. Cheetam said, don’t be stupid. We’re divorcing, your mom and I.” And in the title story, a vagrant carpenter with a gun in his tool bag signs up as a crew member on a porn film. “Buried at the bottom of the sack… was the gun that he had believed, for the past year, would kill him. The gun was his constant adversary, like a drug, a deep secret that he kept from others, but it was also his passion….”

But there are subtler situations, too. The story “Blessing,” for example, is about a New York couple that recently moved to an old house in a remote part of Washington State; the small family reunion they host there is off-kilter in a way that might seem more sadly familiar.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—John Glassie

John Glassie is a contributing editor for the New York Times Magazine and author of a photo book, Bicycles Locked to Poles, from McSweeney’s.

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