(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Amy Hempel is one of the original short-story writers upon whom the term “minimalist” was conferred but, as several critics have noted, “miniaturist” may be a more accurate term. Some of her stories are very short (including the one-sentence “Housewife,” which appears in Tumble Home). Even in her longer stories the style is compressed and economical in the extreme, the action limited, and the characters constantly making cryptic, ironic comments to one another. In an interview, Hempel said:A lot of times what’s not reported in your work is more important than what actually appears on the page. Frequently the emotional focus of the story is some underlying event that may not be described or even referred to in the story.

Her stories demonstrate this minimalist philosophy again and again. Hempel’s stories often revolve around sadness, loss, and survival: Characters are in hospitals or in recovery or in trouble. However, even in these stories of crisis, Hempel is distinguished by her humor; characters, even children, always have clever things to say to one another, and their conversations are full of metaphors, parables, and symbolic lessons. Hempel’s stories often feature dogs, other animals, and best girlfriends, thus often bordering on sentimentality. What saves the stories from falling into that easier literary condition, if anything, is their sardonic wit.

“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried”

“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” is probably Hempel’s best-known work. Originally published in Tri-Quarterly, it has been reprinted in The Editors’ Choice: New American Stories (1985) as well as in the popular Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, and it is quintessentially Hempel. The situation is dire: The narrator is visiting a friend in the hospital whom she has avoided visiting for two months; the friend is dying, and both women are in denial. Their conversation is filled with popular trivia, jokes, and funny stories—but many of these hint at the situation (like the narrator’s fear of flying). After an earthquake, the narrator relates, a teacher got her sixth-grade students to shout, “Bad earth!” at the broken playground. She asks her friend, “Did you know when they taught the first chimp to talk, it lied?” In the end, the friend dies, although the narrator cannot express the thought and says euphemistically, “On the morning she was moved to the cemetery, the one where Al Jolson is buried.” In the last image of the story, the narrator describes what happened when the signing chimp had a baby and it died: “her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief.” Only the narrator is inarticulate in that language, but the sublimation of her feelings makes the story a powerful emotional experience for readers. As is often the case in reading Amy Hempel, less is surely more.

“Today Will Be a Quiet Day”

This short story was also published in Hempel’s first collection, Reasons to Live, and was later included in The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize XI, and The Best of the Missouri Review: Fiction, 1978-1990, the journal where it first appeared.

The story describes a father in San Francisco taking his son and daughter out for the day. The father drives north across the Golden Gate Bridge; the three eat lunch in...

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