Themes and Meanings
Amy Hempel has said that the idea for “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” was suggested to her by her teacher Gordon Lish, the fiction editor of Esquire in the 1970’s, in a fiction-writing workshop that she took at Columbia University. Lish told his students to write on their “most terrible, despicable secret, the thing you will never live down.” Hempel has said that she knew immediately what that secret was for her: “I failed my best friend at the moment when I absolutely couldn’t fail her, when she was dying.” “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” (dedicated to her friend) is Hempel’s fictionalized account of what she considers to be her own failure based on fear. Although Hempel has said that not a word of dialogue in the story was spoken by either her or her friend, she claims that it is a true story. In response to a critic’s judgment that she “leaves out all the right things,” Hempel said she left out some of her friend’s anger, for it would have made the dying friend look less sympathetic. “I was convicting myself” in the story, Hempel said. “I wanted to be the one who did things wrong, not my dying friend.”
Much of the story focuses on the narrator’s efforts to distance herself from the fact of her friend’s dying. Underlying the banter and jokes that dominate the dialogue is the narrator’s own fear of death and her guilt at not having come to see her friend earlier. When she describes the hospital masks she and her friend wear, she says she kept “touching the warm spot where my breath, thank God, comes out.” When a nurse tells them they could be sisters,...
(The entire section is 672 words.)