Link to jump to start of content The Seattle Times Company Jobs Autos Homes Rentals NWsource Classifieds
The Seattle Times Books
Traffic | Weather | Your account Movies | Restaurants | Today's events

Friday, April 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Book Review

"Dead Fish Museum": Disturbing stories, but compelling reading

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Dead Fish Museum"
by Charles D'Ambrosio
Knopf, 236 pp., $22

In many fiction-writing classes, the terms of highest approbation are "gritty," "unflinching" and "authentic" — this last meaning "weird," "bizarre" and sometimes "repulsive." The other students in Charles D'Ambrosio's class may have had to bring thesauruses on the days it was his turn to read, because by the time they finished commenting on his first paragraph, they would have exhausted the customary list.

"The Dead Fish Museum" portrays a world where a nightmare would be a weary rehash of the day's events — or perhaps a relief from them, since one can at least awaken from a nightmare. In the title story, Ramage, a man recently released from an institution — the specifics are hazy, but some variety of mental imbalance was involved — works building sets for a porn flick. The dispirited sex they film reflects a joyless world where violence simmers just beneath the surface, when it doesn't boil over. At dinner in a restaurant one evening, Ramage notices a couple with a baby at the next table: "After a few minutes, Ramage moved his steak knife to the other side of his plate. Something wildly uncentered in his mind had told him he was going to stab the baby in the eye." Is it a surprise that Ramage carries a gun not for self protection but because it is a prop in his varied suicide fantasies?

The real trouble with "The Dead Fish Museum" is that these six stories of people who pop psychotropic pharmaceuticals like vitamins (plus one story in which the characters are almost normal, albeit terribly unhappy) are almost impossible to put down. D'Ambrosio's prose is fluid, even insinuating. Sentence leads on to sentence with a momentum that mimics the twisted logic of madness, the small steps and sudden turns that lead people from well-lit streets and into dark alleys. The vivid details are the grit left after life has been tamped through the sieve of depression, desperation and despair.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




More shopping