A world in miniature
by Keith Taylor
Back in the 1980s, Amy Hempel became famous for one extraordinary short story, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried." In it the narrator visits a friend who is in the last stages of cancer, and the two women simply talk, or try to find a way to talk, about almost anything but the disease, until the narrator is overwhelmed by her inability to find "the language of grief." The language of the story is spare (Hempel was too easily categorized as a "minimalist"), but the author creates the situation with the exact observation we expect in a fine poem. A few months after I read this story, I had to sit in a hospital room watching my own best friend die, and I realized that I had been instructed in this most difficult of tasks by the example of Hempel's story, even though I'm sure she would cringe at the idea that her stories would "instruct" anyone.
Over the course of the next couple of decades, Hempel published four short collections of stories. The longest piece, "Tumble Home," a seventy-page novella set in a psychiatric home, appeared in her third book. I began to think of her as an exquisite miniaturist, so it came as a kind of surprise when these books were put together to make a Collected Stories a couple of years ago. It is a big book, but one that seems to have a memorable gem on almost every page.
Hempel is often a very funny writer, reveling in jokes-both good and bad. For instance, she has one story entitled "Three Popes Walk into a Bar." Another title puns, "And Lead Us Not into Penn Station."
Her characters often rely on jokes and wordplay to get them through situations that would otherwise destroy them. Conversely,
she risks sentimentality with her obsession with animals, particularly dogs-an obsession almost matched by a preoccupation with the paranormal. If it is starting to sound as if Hempel moves
all over the cultural map, perhaps that is true. Yet all of the work in Collected Stories feels unified by an exquisitely calm prose style, by a quality of perception, and by a generous and compassionate sensibility. Her characters are very much a part of our place and time, and she enjoys them all.
In a couple of places, Hempel has included stories that are only one sentence long. Certainly, they are their own little jokes, but they can also suggest much more than that. Whole characters are hidden in them. Here's "Memoir," an entire story from her fourth collection: "Just once in my life-oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?"
Amy Hempel reads from her short stories at the U-M's Residential College Auditorium on Thursday, November 20.
[Originally published in October, 2008.]