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Acclaimed short-story writer Charles D'Ambrosio visits.

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If I were to ask Charles D'Ambrosio, the acclaimed author whose short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review and other esteemed journals of literary writing, one question, it might be this: Are you OK?

Seriously. You might want to see a doctor. Get a second opinion. Take something for that. I just read his most recent collection, The Dead Fish Museum, and pretty much in every one, swaddled around a still-beating but congestive heart, is a broken soul.

In the title story, the down-and-out Ramage is a carpenter for a low-rent pornographer. He's spent time convalescing in a hospital for reasons unclear. He carries around a tool sack at the bottom of which is a gun. After the job is done, he plans to finish it. Meanwhile, his boss wants his S&M bondage flick to quote Citizen Kane.

Then there's the ballerina in "Screenwriter" (a pick for The Best American Short Stories 2004). She's more like a failed dancer, whose neurosis is such that she regularly burns herself with cigarettes or lights her clothes on fire. So she's in a mental institution with the narrator, a successful (so we are to believe) screenwriter whose thoughts of suicide are so common and so familiar he has trouble falling asleep without imagining his own coffin.

Perhaps D'Ambrosio's jaundiced pall is worth it. These are superb stories -- snappy, lean, and they can take a turn. Characters are haunted, wounded and extraordinary, but they are also recognizable. We've met them before. We might even love them.

D'Ambrosio jams so much into short, seemingly simple sentences. Take this one from "Dead Fish Museum," a description of the porn star: "To Ramage, she looked like a rough outline for someone else's idea of a woman, the main points greatly exaggerated."

Or this, describing Ramage's gauzy reflection in a black, polished wall that completes the otherwise empty room where Desiree, the porn star in question, lies battered, naked and shackled, awaiting her close-up: "The wall did not reflect the crew's eyes or mouths; black hollows bloomed in their heads like the holes in a skull."

The ballerina has a few gems, too: "My mouth is full of dead boys."

Characters, of course, don't necessarily reflect their authors. Yet this collection offers as much sympathy as it does brokenness. In "The Scheme of Things," the central event is the accidental death of a young farm girl. Her parents are consumed by grief. The scene at the dinner table in which this modest, humble couple tries to balance truth with dignity over simple pie and coffee is one of the most touching I've read in awhile.

If that and other stories are any indication, then D'Ambrosio is, indeed, OK.

 

Charles D'Ambrosio speaks at the Adamson Visiting Writers Series. 8 p.m. Mon., April 20. Carnegie Mellon University campus, Oakland. Free. 412-268-6094 or www.hss.cmu.edu

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