(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Charles D’Ambrosio’s first book of stories, The Point, is not merely another promising debut. Three of the stories from this collection—the title story, “Her Real Name,” and “Open House”—stand as singular achievements in the form; each offers luminous moments that shed new light onto age-old themes, including sacrifice, salvation, forgiveness, grace. True, D’Ambrosio is working over familiar territory, an emotional landscape crossed by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, and more recently Richard Ford; yet where other young writers are clearly derivative, their influences tattooed across their crease-beaten brows, D’Ambrosio breathes renewed narrative vibrancy and drive into mythologies worn thin, revising twice-told story lines and branding them with his own distinct vision, voice, and name.

“The Point,” which Robert Stone cited as one of 1991’s best short stories, tells of Kurt, a thirteen-year-old narrator who is wiser than his years, aware that “certain things in life can’t be repaired.” Such things include the loss of his father, a medic during the Vietnam War who saved lives but ended up, back home, ending his own life with a shotgun, “his head . . . blasted away.”

Kurt lives with his party-throwing mother on the Point, an affluent beachside community whose inhabitants, the “crazed rumhounds” with whom young Kurt is best acquainted, have been beached by their own self-destructive, self-controlled tides. Kurt’s home has been the site of countless drunken soirees,

silver smoke swirling in the light and all the people suspended in it, hovering around as if they were angels in Heaven—-some kind of Heaven where the host serves highballs and the men smoke cigars and the women all smell like rotting fruit . . . the men laughing, the ice clinking, the women shrieking.

Kurt, ever since he was ten, has been assigned the task of escorting these inebriates to their homes. He considers himself “a hard-core veteran, treating each trip like a mission.” The terrain that is crossed on these “missions” is an emotionally mined battlefield scarred by infidelity and divorce, numbed by Nembutal. If there is one thing that Kurt has learned about this world, it is that it is best “to stick as close as possible to the task at hand.” His reasons are as follows:

I’ve found if you stray too far from the simple goal of getting home and going to sleep you let yourself in for a lot of unnecessary hell. You start hearing about the whole miserable existence, and suddenly it’s the most important thing in the world to fix it all up.

Yet as Kurt’s father warned, “certain things can’t be repaired.” Kurt’s father’s death, for example, cannot be fixed. It is done and over, and nothing in Kurt’s life, in his mother’s life, will ever be the same. The same holds true for Mrs. Gurney, the liquored-up-on-vodka-and-tonic socialite Kurt is assigned, on the night of “The Point,” to see safely home. On the way, after several detours and pit stops during which she half-strips off her clothes and foolhardily wonders whether Kurt considers her still beautiful, Mrs. Gurney, washed up before the age of forty, turns and says to Kurt: “ ‘Do you know how suddenly life can turn?’ ”

Kurt knows that this question is bound to lead down a road best not taken. “We needed to get beyond this stage, this tricky stage of groveling in the sand and feeling depressed,” he explains. Although he is sensitive and innocent enough to listen to all Mrs. Gurney’s talk of self-pity and misery, nothing—and of this Kurt is fully aware—is so bad that it cannot be helped by a good night’s sleep.

The characters in The Point are all struggling to patch things up, to fix things, to make things right. Each of the seven stories move toward and open up around moments when life, as Mrs. Gurney says, suddenly turns: most often not for better, but for worse, though for the most part D’Ambrosio’s characters manage to see through to the other side of bad situations. They endure. They live. They cross over the threshold of darkness and step into the light of redemption and grace. Like John Cheever, who revealed to readers the untidy lives lived in houses that look immaculate on the outside, D’Ambrosio points out the dirty truth behind what cannot be seen: that, in fact, “the mess [is] all on the inside.”

“The Point” is a story a young Fitzgerald might have written—one that Nick Carraway...

(The entire section is 1843 words.)