Oddly, I came across Charles D'Ambrosio's Loitering via the Acrostics puzzle in the Sunday New York Times.
However it arrived on my desk, it was truly a wonderful find!
Loitering is somewhat a re-issue: apparently D'Ambrosio had released many of these essays 15 years ago, in an alternate collection that is now out of print. So many of the essays are nearly two decades old; others are newer.
Old, new, or in-between: these are phenomenally good essays, and D'Ambrosio is a writer of startling skill.
As the greatest writers do, D'Ambrosio sees everything through the lens of language.
This can be a disconcerting experience. For example, here is D'Ambrosio, who has become interested in how mobile homes are constructed, marketed, deployed, and lived-in (perhaps he is thinking of buying one?), visiting a suburban town where a number of these homes are in use:
I stopped a couple of places to look through a few more completed houses. All along I'd been intrigued by the lack of language inside these model homes. There were no words, spoken or written, and even the few decorative books seemed mute on the shelves -- not words, but things. Language in the modular industry belongs largely to the manufacturing end of the business, and there, in technical brochures and spec sheets, it's thick and arcane, made up of portmanteaus and other odd hybrids that are practically Linnaean in their specificity. You get Congoleum and Hardipanel Siding and Nicrome Elements. At the factory all that language is assembled and given narrative development in the tightly plotted path the house takes as it progresses from chassis to truck. But once inside the finished home it ends, there's a kind of white hush, a held breath, and all narrative, defined simply as a sequence of events in time, is gone. Silence and timelessness take over so that when the door opens and you cross the threshold you feel you've stepped out of life itself.
Who tries to interpret a mobile home in terms of its language? Who contemplates "Language in the modular industry?" Who visits a mobile home assembly line and observes that "language is assembled and given narrative development?"
A writer does.
At least, a writer of D'Ambrosio's bent does.
But what is this "language inside these model homes" that he is so interested in?
As he explains, it's truly there, if you just know how to look:
In house #19 I find an icy aspect to the arrangement of family artifacts and like Keats before the Grecian Urn I can't quite puzzle out the story. Photos have been framed and set out on tables and shelves but the pictures are of those same corny people who haven't aged a bit since they came with your first cheap wallet. Who are these blonde women with unfading smiles? Whose bright kids are these? What happy family is this? In the kitchen two ice cream sundaes sit on the counter. Those sundaes will never melt, nor will they be eaten. The cookbook in the kitchen is open to a recipe for blueberry pancakes but in the living room a bottle of wine and two glasses wait on a coffee table. What time of day is it?
Yes, indeed, there is language here, and D'Ambrosio has found it.
(By the way, I love the gentle allusion to the famous first sentence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.")
Loitering continues along like this, nearly every essay a gem of blinding clarity that wastes nary a word, aiming directly and unerringly to the heart of the matter.
Not everything is perfect: I got very little out of the essay Hell House, except to admire its skill in execution; and the essay Misreading was a complete miss for me.
But when D'Ambrosio is on, oh boy is he on.
Take, for just one more instance, since I can't bear to let this pass un-celebrated:
... the difficulty of writing ... of capturing the sound of the sentences, a sound that isn't precious, by eliminating, as much as possible, the emotional fussiness of commas -- instead using hard consonants and the natural stresses of our largely iambic language to create the rhythm.
I mean, do you see what he just did there?
Along the way, there is plenty more. The best of the lot, I think, is an epic essay that starts with a wounded robin, spends pages in the most complex literary analysis of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye that I think I've ever read, and ends up being not an exegesis, or at least not only an exegesis, but really an investigation of the loss of D'Ambrosio's younger brother to suicide as a child.
Loitering is a book for the ages; I will surely pay attention to D'Ambrosio's other work, when I encounter it.