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A Literary Lift


by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & ince the 1990s, Charles D'Ambrosio has been getting his short fiction published in a variety of prominent publications, from the venerated Paris Review to the New Yorker. His stories straddle that American condition in which hope and wretchedness share a room. As the Miami Herald put it, his stories are "dark and graceful, as deeply nuanced as novels. D'Ambrosio evokes lives of regret and resignation, and there's never a false note, only the quiet desperation of souls seeking the elusive promise of redemption."

He'll read from his collection, The Dead Fish Museum, and sign books as part of Get Lit! at the Spokane Club on Saturday at 4 pm.

A Seattle native (who now lives in Portland), D'Ambrosio would hitchhike to Ohio for school at Oberlin College. (Later, he attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop.) And that's where Spokane comes in. As he described it in an interview on, he first hopped a freight train in Spokane back in the early 1980s.

"I was hitchhiking, and I got stuck in Spokane at night," D'Ambrosio told Dave Welch. "It was hard to hitchhike at night. Probably people don't see you, and partly they're terrified; they're not going to pick you up. So I was stuck, and I thought, What do I do? There was a freight yard not too far away. I thought, I'll ride freight trains, but I didn't know how to do it. So I thought, I'm just going to ask somebody. And I would just say, 'Hey, I'm going to college, and I'm trying to go east. How do I do it?' I just screwed up the nerve and went in and talked to somebody...

"And they actually just told me. They told me where to stand. They told me when the train would be coming in... Trains come in on one or two lines into the yard and then they bottleneck, they spread out. Different trains will spread out over the entire yard. I couldn't quite figure out what line I wanted to be on within the yard, so I went up to the bottleneck. I figured, That train's got to come in on that line. I jumped a moving train, which you never want to do. You throw your pack in and you have to leap up and get in. It's kind of hard to do, but that's what I did. And of course the train that I got on came into the yard and just stayed there for six hours. I just hung out and waited for it to leave. That's how I first did it."

As literary fodder, you can do a lot worse than hop a freight train: Writers like John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, Jack London and Edward Abbey have all depicted "freighthopping" in their work. A means of travel -- albeit illegal -- since the Civil War, it has a uniquely American allure to it. And it continues to cast a spell -- the 2001 documentary Catching Out follows outcast teens traveling the Northwest by rail.

D'Ambrosio discusses the call of the rails in his 2004 New Yorker essay, "Train in Vain."

"I loved hopping freight trains. It was cheap, dirty, loud, picturesque, illegal, athletic, dangerous, and, best of all, it didn't seem like a vacation. In fact, as far as I could tell, there was nothing in riding trains that even remotely resembled pleasure. It was hard work."

Kind of like writing a great short story.

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