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Stories from the Underside: 'Dead Fish Museum'

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From the psychiatric wards of Manhattan to the shores of Puget sound, the America of short story writer Charles D'Ambrosio is a rather dark place. Dark, but beautiful, according to Alan Cheuse. Here's his review of the new collection, THE DEAD FISH MUSEUM.

ALAN CHEUSE reporting:

Let's get the darkest of the dark out of the way. In the title story, a recently hospitalized screenwriter named Ramage, down on his luck, checks into a motel the night before his job as head of the carpentry crew for a pornographic movie. Ramage has packed a gun in his belongings, toying with the idea of another kind of shooting.

Another story, Screenwriter, gives us a similarly distressed writer. This man finds himself in a New York City mental ward where he falls into a sick dalliance with a woman who burns herself when she can. She'd never be naked again, the writer tells us, not with the textile weave of her scars, the plaid and polka dots she'd made of her skin. The scars marring the lives of the other characters in this collection are more psychic than physical.

In Drummond and Son, the schizophrenic son of a Seattle typewriter repairman makes hash of perception even while his father struggles heroically to understand their dual plight. In the story called Blessing, an east coast couple starting from zero in a purchased house in the Skagit Valley of northern Washington find their apparent happiness shifting into a minor key, dragged down by relatives and the insistent grating of time.

All of these stories work beautifully because of the seamless way in which D'Ambrosio has integrated his pessimistic view of love, family relations, perhaps all human contact, into a prose that uplifts the page even as the characters sink. As in the moment when that despairing typewriter repairman riding on a city bus with his damaged son sees a ferry on Puget Sound, its windows as bright as ingots of gold, carting a load of light out of the city, making for the dark headlands of Bainbridge Island.

With that vision in mind, all the reader can do is take a quick breath and go on to read more of these beautifully crafted images of encroaching darkness.

BLOCK: The book is THE DEAD FISH MUSEUM by Charles D'Ambrosio. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.