Contemporary personal essays—particularly those published online, where timing is everything—value immediate synthesis, with daily observations distilled into transient ideologies. Charles D’Ambrosio’s essays are antidotes to such real-time writing. If “a piece of prose aspires to art,” he writes, “it must close itself off, setting in motion sympathetic vibrations and gaining, as with any enclosure, resonance.” Loitering, his book of new and collected essays, is an argument for the kind of meditative non-fiction that resonates by leaving its “questions on the page.”
D’Ambrosio, the author of two story collections and a regular contributor to The New Yorker, values inquiry over invective. He laments “that expressions of real doubt or honest ignorance are now regarded, in the demotic mind, as a kind of recreancy, a failure of loyalty, the sign of a faith betrayed.” He agrees with Patricia Hampl’s suggestion that “not-knowing is the first condition of prayer, rather than its negation,” and in an interview with The New Yorker, D’Ambrosio says he goes to “regular confession.”
It might be tempting, then, to call D’Ambrosio’s essays confessions. But he rejects that label. The self of his essays is “more like a perspective, an angle of vision, a complicating factor, a questioning presence.” The better the work is going, the less he seems to be involved in shaping the material, and the more the “‘I’ becomes impersonal.” The “demands of language” differ on the page than from what is spoken within the confessional. The “dual allegiance, to the truth of the thing and to the truth of writing, inevitably takes you away from the merely heartfelt.” Confession is private, but essays need to be public.
D’Ambrosio’s subjects are rarely ecclesiastical, but his essays use faith as both anchor and pivot. “This Is Living” begins with a reflection on selling candy bars as a Catholic student; a later essay about his brother’s suicide ends with the note that parochial kids were taught that “so be it” is the meaning of “amen.” Definitions are invitations for criticism; what makes an essayist Catholic is not dogma but doubt. Dogmatic essays are written toward conclusions. Doubt is borne of observation and contemplation, modes and behaviors endemic to essayists.
This “loitering” of mind is a theme of the book, throughout which D’Ambrosio’s associative method of writing is impeccably controlled. He is an excellent builder of sentences, a writer who makes his readers smarter. “Hell House” examines a gory haunted-house attraction that uses horror effects for fundamentalist evangelization. D’Ambrosio likes scares but is unimpressed. He thinks a good haunted house “is a sensual affair, more like sex than theology.” The bloody rooms make their preachers seem like “they’re horny for apocalypse.” Suspense is replaced with shouting, and D’Ambrosio leaves, dulled by the theatrical representations of abortion, rape, and suicide.
The heights that D’Ambrosio can reach with his prose are probably best on display in “Misreading,” in which he remembers his dead father. Whenever the two had to discuss difficult topics, they did so via written communications “swapped” in kitchen cubbyholes: “[Our] deepest concerns were treated as secrets,” D’Ambrosio writes, “and our needs, sealed in envelopes, felt illicit.” This extended to an exchange on premarital sex, initiated by D’Ambrosio at the age of fourteen, when he was “hoping for a path out of Catholicism, a loophole in the homiletics I knew by heart.” But his father’s response “had the rote sound of the Baltimore Catechism”: No premarital sex; no extramarital sex. D’Ambrosio, seeking a “more lifelike answer,” was disappointed and so broke the proscription with his girlfriend in her basement. With masterful timing, D’Ambrosio sneaks this sinful detail in at the end of a paragraph.
Later in the essay, after D’Ambrosio’s life has taken several more curves, he enters a church named after his patron saint. The “slightly damp smell of cold stones and the familiar emptiness made me want to confess,” he writes, and the intonation of the responsorial chant brings him back to his schooling. His prose channels the moment:
“At early weekday masses it’s always Eleanor Rigby and her devout sisters, the secret sufferers, the wounded, the inconsolable, women who show up in their hastily tied bonnets and tattered housecoats, each alone, scattered through the nave, and yet that morning their thin muffled voices held so near to the note and so exactly to those rising and falling rhythms I knew by heart that joining in with them was like letting someone else do my breathing for a while. I had not felt so close to anyone in ages.”
Again, D’Ambrosio reflects, but does not confess. When “it was my time, I left, not because I was without sin but because I had lost the habit of truth.”
Loitering ends with “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” which discusses the poetry of Richard Hugo and Czesław Miłosz. D’Ambrosio considers the contemporary value of poetry in a world of prose. Prose leans forward; it moves. But why, he wonders, “would anyone write a poem in this wrecked world”? So often D’Ambrosio’s questions have unspoken layers. Michel de Montaigne, the father of the meditative essay, wrote, “This world is but a school of inquiry. The question is not who will spear the ring but who will make the best charges at it.” D’Ambrosio calls his own writing “scrappy incondite essays, not prayers,” but admits that “behind each piece, animating every attempt, was the echo of a precarious faith, that we are more intimately bound to one another by our kindred doubts than our brave conclusions.” Loitering is a book built on the faith of inquiry, on the value of contemplation in a world that rushes, foolishly, to judgment.