Gazing into the outside world often affords one a closer view of the self. In his essay collection, Loitering, accomplished fiction author Charles D’Ambrosio reveals aspects of his painful personal and family history by placing himself in diverse surroundings and experiences. True to its title, Loitering collects the contemplations of a man lingering in foreign rooms, on street corners and between the pages of books, but rather than inviting examinations of what’s in front of him, the environments act as catalysts for investigations of his own relationship with suicide, mental illness, and the type of isolation a life of observation brings.
In the book’s title essay, a young, insomnia-afflicted D’Ambrosio wanders to the scene of police standoff and assumes his typical role as spectator. Rather than probe bystanders or officers for details of the altercation, or try and influence the outcome of the domestic situation, he occupies himself by scrutinizing a reporter “wearing navy-blue pants and a red coat, an outfit that resembles the unsexed uniform of a reservations clerk for a national hotel chain,” and reflecting on the strange string of events that lead him to stand in front of a potential shootout. Acting as an inert witness also allows D’Ambrosio to untether his mind from the events in front of him, and let it drift into tangential corridors of memory, speculation, philosophy, and literature. The rainy crime scene, for example, ushers in contemplations on meiosis, irony, journalism and how the city’s anonymous poverty has impacted his life. Elsewhere in the book a visit to a Russian orphanage sparks rumination on the inability of language to capture emotion and the mid-90’s Mary Kay Letourneau rape trial leads to comments on the capability of society to ever achieve true mastery of any subject.
In many of the essays, D’Ambrosio can only focus on the outside world for so long, and his thoughts often turn to personal experience. His father’s descent into madness, one of his brother’s suicide, and another brother’s schizophrenia lurk below the surface of every essay and emerge frequently. Whether as an overt subject or a brief tangent, D’Ambrosio cannot escape the pains of witnessing his family’s collapse and the book becomes more about that than anything else. In an essay about The Catcher in the Rye, for example, D’Ambrosio admits “as is always, perhaps inevitably the case, the unbalanced weight my own life brought to the material gave the work this off-center, wobbly orbit, and even now I can’t seem to read the stuff any differently. It’s all about Suicide and Silence.” By bringing his own tragic experiences into discussions of such disparate subjects as pre-fab housing, Richard Brautigan and Native American whaling rites, readers gain an understanding of how events can consume a person.
The collection’s astounding breadth of subjects protects Loitering from collapsing under D’Ambrosio’s tendency towards introspection. In different essays, the author seeks out whale meat, visits an ultra-Christian “hell house,” talks with bizarre-o inventor David Santos about the possibility of living in the clouds, and reflects on being fictionalized in a friend’s novel, amongst other unique experiences. So even when D’Ambrosio brings up familiar themes, he does so with a new set of characters and events which guide and enrich his examinations.
Further enhancing the book’s significant range, many of the essays start in places largely unrelated to their eventual subject matter. For example, “Catching Out,” begins with a description of his father’s fear of driving and ends describing D’Ambrosio’s time spent hoping rails. Thanks to their meandering, tangent-filled structure, these essays present the honest and messy thought-process of an ultra-intelligent man aiming to make sense of the world and how it can better inform his own place within it.
Similarly, the essays frequently reach no conclusion nor attain any precise point of enlightenment. For example, in an anecdote regarding his time spent at a reproduction furniture factory, D’Ambrosio admits, “people were hungry for the attributes of hardship, and our faux antiques replaced the real past with an emblematic one. Or something. I could never quite untwist the riddle completely.” His frequent questions and professed ignorance deftly and satisfyingly mirror the complex ways in which we all experience our surroundings.
Consistent with his aim to explore his own identity and history rather than the outside world that shapes it, D’Ambrosio has little interest in facts or the type of research that can burden nonfiction and distract from its aims of personal discovery. For example, in “Salinger and Sobs,” D’Ambrosio examines The Catcher in the Rye in an attempt to explain Salinger’s views on suicide and family while consciously avoiding reading any biographical information about Salinger. Rather than delve into scientific research or expert opinion, D’Ambrosio relies upon deep thought and associations with personal events. In this way, the author can devote himself to first-hand experiences and provide intimate, individual views on the issues.
The essays’ complex ruminations succeed largely because D’Ambrosio’s employs refreshing, yet exact language. Descriptions such as “the interior space is made of incredibly long, horrid corridors lined on either side with black doors like answers to a question you’d long ago forgotten,” delight and invite re-reading. Similarly, the author’s mastery of image and metaphor lend credibility to his critique of academic subjects including Richard Hugo’s poetry and the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. One never questions D’Ambrosio’s intelligence, but his work at the sentence level further underscores the attention he gives to the issues.
Loitering represents the rare book that can look simultaneously outward and inward. By using a mixed set of subjects and events to explore a limited range of personal matters, D’Ambrosio achieves both complexity and variety. The collection suggests that however far one ventures into the world, one can never leave the effects of one’s past. D’Ambrosio seems to argue that the world and the self forever comment on one-another, and both become far richer for it.
Paul Christiansen is the former editor-in-chief of Gulf Stream magazine and contributor to the Florida Book Review. A proud Wisconsin native, he received an MFA from Florida International University and currently resides in Vietnam on a Fulbright Grant.