I almost never read what could be broadly described as the alternative press, largely because it requires time I don’t have. Between working, writing, family, walking the dog, eating, fitness, crosswords, daydreaming, eating and sports—this Warriors-Cavs series is the greatest thing ever, right?—it’s all I can do to keep up my New Yorker subscription (and Bloomberg Business Week, Sports Illustrated, the weekend NYTimes and some other stuff).
Charles D’Ambrosio’s collection Loitering makes me feel like I’ve been missing something, possibly something quite important. While a couple of D’Ambrosio’s essays initially appeared in that that most gatekept of institutions, New Yorker ( I first became a fan of D’Ambrosio’s fiction after hearing his short story The Point read and discussed on the invaluable New Yorker fiction podcast) most of the pieces in Loitering first appeared in the alternative press. His writing goes on one brilliant flight after another. If I were the sort to highlight great lines when I read, this book would be glowing.
Many of D’Ambrosio’s essays are, directly or indirectly, about coping with the tragedy in and around his life. Some are about writing, including a great one about J.D. Salinger. My favorite in this book, titled “Casting Stones,” is on a topic from which I would not have expected greatness: the tabloid-friendly case of Mary Letourneau, a school teacher in the Seattle area who had a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old student.
It tells you all you need to know about Dambrosio’s approach to the Letourneau that he doesn’t spell out the basic facts of the legal charge until he is halfway through the essay. Part of this may be that he was writing about it in a time, and for a community, that could be assumed to know the basics of the story through saturation coverage. But D’Ambrosio’s approaches the Letourneau case from such a broad angle that his essay seems to speak not just to the matter at hand but to any number of the public gossip-dramas in the succeeding decades.
One brief example: in the Letorneau case, some commentators argued that she should have been punished more harshly, and that she would have been if she were male and the student female. To augment this argument they brought up a recent case in the Seattle area where this happened involving a teacher named Mark Blilie.
D’Ambrosio responded to this with, “On the superficial level there seem to be plenty of differences between the situations, and on the existential level there is nothing but difference. Letourneau and Mark Blilie are two different people…What kind of damage is done to our ability to love or understand and thus fully judge one another when we’re daily encouraged to forget they are people and view them as so much pasteboard, scenery, clutter, generalized instances (of murder, of rape, of embezzlement, etc?)” This then leads D’Ambrosio to Neitszche D’Ambrosio goes on to D.H. Lawrence’s quote: “The sympathetic heart is broken. We stink in each other’s nostrils.”
Mind you, Twitter had not even been invented yet.
D’Ambrosio, when he looked at Letourneau, considered the possibility that she really was love with her student. And while this detail is not necessary to prove the value of his writing, or to establish that he observed this case in a way that others didn’t, it is worth noting that, a couple decades down the road, Letourneau is long out of prison and now married to the student she was charged with molesting.