“My main problem vis-à-vis journalism is I just don’t have an instinct for what’s important,” Charles D’Ambrosio writes self-effacingly in “The Crime That Never Was,” one of 11 extraordinary essays crammed into this pocket-size book. Standing on the periphery of a crime scene near his Seattle apartment, D’Ambrosio (author of the story collection The Point) tries to play reporter, but instead his mind drifts into a graceful string of associations, both personal and historical. “My first note,” he confesses, “was about the old alleys in Seattle, those island places where stickerbushes flourish and a man can still sleep on a patch of bare earth, where paths are worn like game trails and leave a trace of people’s passing . . . ”
These essays range from a piece on modular homes to a stark rumination on his own tragic family history. Each slips and slides between genres and registers, D’Ambrosio’s lucid prose somehow very funny and terribly melancholy all at once. In the title piece, written for avant-shelter magazine Nest, he conveys the tenuous ecosystem of a post-Soviet orphanage via tiny details, like surfaces “so worn and rubbed and handled by living beings” that they’ve taken on “a kind of inner burrowed shape arrived at by working the materials from within, like the nest of a wren.” When he visits “Hell House,” a haunted house in which characters are sent to hell for their sins, D’Ambrosio finds pathos in the secondhand furniture (“pre-saddened by other lives”) before noting that people are killed off there “because they lived the wrong way, made the wrong choices, believed and thought or felt the wrong things.” Several pieces bemoan the blunt, inadequate language we use to make sense of the world. As he writes in a report on the media coverage of the Mary Kay Letourneau case, “Maybe sympathy’s just a pain in the ass, maybe a sympathetic understanding would only muddy the works on television when all that’s being asked for is a minute or two of high-cost clarity.” These wayward, deeply human essays offer a perfect antitode to such false simplicity.