If only commercial realities allowed New Zealanders to enjoy long-form journalism. We have no shortage of talented writers, but lack - leaving aside the blogosphere, where it's best left - the kind of outlet that would offer them the necessary elbow room.
This volume of the collected essays and journalism of Charles D'Ambrosio shows what pleasure is to be had when a first-class writer is given their head and space to roam.
The much-decorated D'Ambrosio is a product of Seattle, and the second (and title) piece in the collection is set there, and expresses the author's ambivalence to the cold, wet place of his birth.
It's an apt intro: you get to know him - his humour, his erudition (in the first piece, he quotes Augustine), his empathy with the underdog, his self-deprecation.
He has stumbled across an incident - a man, presumed armed, is holed up in his grotty bedsit and a SWAT team is there trying to dislodge him. A bunch of citizens is standing in the rain and the pre-dawn, listlessly watching. Nothing happens, and D'Ambrosio ruefully reflects on his inadequacies as a journalist: "I just don't have an instinct for what's important. I realise that now, looking over my notes. My first note was about the old alleys in Seattle, those island places where sticker bushes 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, and how these naturally surviving spots are systematically vanishing from the city, rooted up and paved over mostly because they house bums - an act of eradication that seems as emotionally mingy as putting pay slots on public toilets."
Perhaps his instincts for what's important are better than he lets on.
There are 17 pieces here, divided into three sections, but all written, figuratively speaking, from the same place, even when the topic is a fruitless quest to the remote north of Washington State to try to taste whale meat, or a journalistic assignment to report on Hell House (a kind of theme park designed to terrify teens contemplating extramarital sexual relations with dioramas of abortion gone wrong), or a meditation on the showroom, where they show how homely a trailer home can be, or (the best
piece of all) an essay on the bricks, of which Old Seattle is built.
He is self-conscious in his responses, both intellectual and emotional, so that there is a kind of architectural honesty about his writing. You can see the pulleys and levers and exactly what makes him tick.
Various hints alert us to the profound influence upon his life and letters that his brothers have had. We already know that his younger brother, Danny, committed suicide before we learn the ghastly circumstances. We already know that his older brother attempted suicide, and still suffers from the affliction that drove him to it, along with the effects of injuries he sustained in his tragi-comic failure.
The erudition can be a little too much: there is an amount of over-analysis in some of the review pieces in the last section of the book.
But there is such depth, wisdom, insight, humour and compassion here, you'd forgive him anything.
by Charles D'Ambrosio
(Text Publishing $38)