Amy Hempel is the author of two previous collections of short fiction, Reasons to Live (1985) and At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990), tightly controlled, highly compressed stories that happen swiftly, and unfold unexpectedly: quick, flash-floodlike fictions driven by situational and verbal acrobatics. Hempel is brave enough to embrace uncertainty in her struggle to write stories of unpredictable and lasting power. Such masterful, tiny palm-of-the-hand dramas as “In a Tub,” “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” and “The Harvest” are already considered new classics—daring stories propelled by unpredictable blasts of language. Hempel’s debut collection immediately attracted national attention, for its voice, vision, and sensibility were unmistakably quirky and inimitably new. Her second book delivered unconditionally, uncompromisingly, on the promise of the first. Now, in Tumble Home, her third assembling of fiction, Hempel has hit the mark once again.
Ironically, Hempel’s characters are far less secure as persons than she has become as a writer. They are transient, always looking for a new place to call home. As the title Tumble Home suggests, they exist in a constant state of “tumbling,” for even when they do arrive at any given place, and even though they might want to stay, something always keeps them from feeling rooted, from feeling a sense of comfort or at-homeness in their own home.
Such is the situation in “The Annex,” the story of a woman whose house is directly across the street from a cemetery. As she explains, “From every window in the front of our house, when you look out, that gravestone is what you see.” The gravestone is that of a five-month-old baby—the narrator exclaims, “five unborn months!” She is haunted, each day, not only by the revisited vision of that headstone but by the presence of a visitor—the mother of this five-month-old—who becomes, for the woman of the house, a menacing, threatening trespasser. “I can almost believe,” she confesses, “that somewhere is the person who could look across the street and see a vision of perfect peace.” For her, the recurring sight of the child’s grave marker and a grieving mother is too much to bear. She will never be at rest, at peace, even in her own home. Like many of the other characters found in this collection, she has found not a reason to live, but reason to flee.
It is not always perfectly clear which way Hempel’s fleeing characters ought to go. This is certainly the case with Jack, the on-the-run, on-the-road protagonist of “Sportsman,” who, when faced with the hardcore loneliness of an empty house after his wife Alex leaves him, heads east to upstate New York, to stay for a little while with a pair of old friends. Upon his arrival—after driving virtually nonstop across the country, stopping only to sleep at the side of the road (to avoid staying at cheap motels that struggle and end up failing to replicate the comforts and appearances of home)— Jack hopes to relocate his old self here in the company of Vicki and her husband, referred to only as “the doctor.” The two of them proceed, in an effort to help Jack, to fix him up with a date/visit with their psychic friend Trina, who predicts “a turbulent year ahead with the love of his life.” Jack, a man who believes that “there was nothing wrong with faking your way to where you belonged,” finds solace in the simple fact that “the psychic had not said that Alex was the love of his life. He had assumed that was who she was talking about.” This simple, anticipated possibility—the piece of fiction projected by a total stranger—of somebody else stirring up friction in his love life is enough to keep Jack hoping, enough to give him a renewed, although falsely optimistic, vision of who and what he might be pulled toward next.
In “Weekend,” a very short piece of fiction (although it is not the briefest story in this collection—the shortest is a single-paragraph/single-sentence sliver of a tale called “Housewife”), Hempel captures the organized chaos of a country-day picnic among city people getting away from city life. It is a portrait of grown men and women going back home to the nonchalant pace of childhood, back to that falling-into-love phase of honeymoon romance, of life before kids, of casual attire and weekend whiskers, of women whispering, beneath the heated breath of a good-night kiss, “Stay, stay,” instead of “Go.”
Hempel is a chronicler of a generation of characters always on the go, always coming from someplace else, never native to the place they are calling home. They...
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