The state of the written word in America was summed up perfectly by a recent New York Times story, which detailed corporate America's struggle to get its foot soldiers to communicate...

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The state of the written word in America was summed up perfectly by a recent New York Times story, which detailed corporate America’s struggle to get its foot soldiers to communicate with those crazy symbols called words. Here’s one of the e-mails the story cited:

“I updated the Status report for the four discrepancies Lennie forward us via e-mail (they in Barry file) … to make sure my logic was correct It seems we provide Murray with incorrect information … However after verifying controls on JBL — JBL has the indicator as B ???? — I wanted to make sure with the recent changes — I processed today — before Murray make the changes again on the mainframe to ‘C.’ “

This is just a start though, really. Of the remaining Americans who can think and write with any clarity, their bad and boring ideas just pile up like grub on a plate at the Old Country Buffet. Just read the op-ed page of your average American newspaper, and you’ll see what I mean.

So it is with some pleasure that we encounter Charles D’Ambrosio and his collection of essays and reportage, “Orphans” (Clear Cut Press, 238 pp., $12.95), which, though by no means perfect, arrives as a bit of relief from all the bad noise. Better yet, he’s a local, and many of the pieces were written for The Stranger.

There are words here, like ochlocratic and meiosis and prolepsis, that you won’t find elsewhere. There are thinkers, like Levi-Strauss and Nietzsche, and poets like Keats and Percy B. Shelley, and most of all, there’s an idea — that reality, that life, cannot be reduced down to some shoutable slogan, some bumper sticker bromide, some simmering sauté of outrage. How dare this D’Ambrosio! And is that name French?

You can skip the first essay and go right to “Seattle, 1974.” Around these parts it’s known as the “Boeing recession.” The Seattle of the 1970s is a mystery to we transplants, but D’Ambrosio is better than anyone I’ve encountered in describing what it was like, and his one-word metaphor seems perfectly descriptive: coma.

Author appearance

Charles D’Ambrosio will read from his book, “Orphans,” 7:30 tonight, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle (206-624-6600 or

“The Seattle of that time had a distinctly comalike aspect and at night seemed to contain in its great sleepy volume precisely one of everything, one dog-a-barking, one car-a-cranking, one door a-slamming, etc., and then an extravagant, unnecessary amount of nothing.” That, my friends, is a fine use of the word extravagant.

And there’s a sheer pleasure in reading a writer who tries to defend Mary Kay Letourneau, the teacher who had two children with one of her young students. Amidst the chorus — unanimous and prurient — D’Ambrosio humanizes her.

He begins with a fine critique of a sculpture garden outside the King County Regional Justice Center, where Letourneau was sentenced:

“Looking at it you feel less in the elevated presence of art than hammered over the head by a governmental or bureaucratic intention and the effect is of sovietized realism, of culture that’s policed, official, approved, frozen, cliché, one-note, panderly, in other words, everything that art is not.”

Get it? The poverty of our official art indicates a poverty of ethics and ideas — a one-note morality, if you will.

There’s much to recommend here — in the book’s title essay, and especially in a withering critique called “Hell House” — but my favorite may be an attack on whale enthusiasts who tried to prevent the Makah from hunting.

He quotes an anti-whaling activist: “They [the whales] grace the azure blue with a majestic intelligence wedded to an amazing tactile grace. A profound, elusive, ephemeral sentience, they deify the abysmal depths with their regal presence.”

And then, insight: “If you can love abstractly, you’re only a bad day away from hating abstractly.”

J. Patrick Coolican: 206-464-3315 or