Amy Hempel (born December 14, 1951) 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 Petaluma, and then the daughter drives them home by a different route. Little happens, in other words, and the story is filled with their conversation, joke-telling, and jousting—like the title, an inscription the son once imagined on his tombstone. The father has taken them out for the day because
He wanted to know how they were, is all. Just—how were they. . . . You think you’re safe, the father thought, but it’s thinking you’re invisible because you closed your eyes.
A friend of the boy has recently killed himself, readers learn, and the father wants to make sure his own kids are okay. The imagery of the story underlines the question of the difference between appearance and reality: The restaurant where they have lunch still looks like the gas station it originally was; the daughter discovers that the dog she thought was taken to live on a ranch has been put to sleep. At the end of the story, all three are in sleeping bags in the master bedroom of their house. Has the mother died recently? Are the parents divorced? Something hidden has given a tension to the simple events of the story. As they fall asleep, the father asks if they want the good news or bad news first and then says he lied, that there is no bad news. For a little while longer, perhaps, he is going to be able to protect his two teenagers from the dangers of the world, but this protective posture, as Hempel intimates to readers, is precarious.
“The Harvest” was originally published in The Quarterly and collected in At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Hempel’s second collection of stories, and it is the best example of her metafictional style, a style which has occasionally appeared in her fiction. The story is narrated by a young woman who has been in an auto accident: She and her date were headed for dinner in his car when they were hit, and in the accident the narrator almost lost her leg—or did she? In the second half of the story, she starts to unravel her narrative, and to describe the things she left out of the story, made up, or exaggerated—the marital status of the man, the seriousness of her injuries— and by the end, readers question what, if anything, took place. A psychiatrist tells the girl that victims of trauma often have difficulties distinguishing fiction from reality, and the insight underlines what Hempel is doing in “The Harvest”: telling a story that becomes a narrative about making up a story—or about storytelling itself.
The Most Girl Part of You
This story was first published in Vanity Fair and was subsequently reprinted in New American Short Stories and in At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, and it displays the basic Hempel style. A teenage narrator tells of her relationship with her friend, “Big Guy,” whose mother hung herself eight days earlier. Although the surface conversation is, as usual, full of jokes, clearly there is something deeper going on. Big Guy sews the girl’s name into the skin of his hand, sucks ice to try to crack his teeth, and cuts the insect bites on her body with a razor. When Big Guy starts to make love to her after a dance, the girl claims she is “ready to start to truly be alive,” but readers sense something else—his instability, her insecurity, and her obvious pity for his tragedy. The title of the story comes from a film she was forced to watch at school years earlier, The Most Girl Part of You, and her own mother has apparently encouraged her sexual initiation. To readers, that introduction to adult sexuality seems wrong. Like the iceberg Ernest Hemingway used to describe a story’s hidden content, a large part of this story’s cryptic meaning may lie beneath the tense fictional surface.
Tumble Home: A Novella and Short Stories
This collection contains seven stories and the title novella, an eighty-page letter the narrator is writing to an artist she may or may not have met, describing her life inside a mental hospital. Little happens, and readers learn more about the narrator’s friends in the institution—Karen, Warren, and Chatty—than about the narrator’s own life. There is hardly anything remarkable in their conversations except the wit and sardonic humor of Hempel’s elliptical, firstperson style. The other stories in the collection—several of them just a few pages long—reflect typical Hempel concerns. “Sportsman,” probably the strongest story here, for example, describes the breakup of Jack and Alex. Jack drives east from California to stay with his friends Vicki and her husband, “the doctor,” who live on Long Island. Vicki arranges for Jack to see Trina, a psychic, but then Alex calls from California to say that her mother has suffered a stroke. The story ends with Jack and Trina headed into New York City on a date, but the resolution of the relationships here is far from certain. As usual, appearances can be deceiving. The city looks pretty good, Jack comments; “Give it a minute,” the psychic responds. Like Raymond Carver, Hempel often tells deceptively simple stories about contemporary characters in deeper trouble than they realize.
Anthology: Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs, 1995 (with Jim Shepard).
Short fiction: Reasons to Live, 1985; At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, 1990; Tumble Home: A Novella and Short Stories, 1997; The Dog of the Marriage, 2005; The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, 2006.
Aldridge, John W. Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992.
Ballantyne, Sheila. “Rancho Libido, and Other Hot Spots.” Review of Reasons to Live, by Amy Hempel. The New York Times Book Review, April 28, 1985, p. 9.
Blythe, Will, ed. Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.
Hallett, Cynthia J. “Minimalism and the Short Story.” Studies in Short Fiction 33 (1996): 487-495.
Hemple, Amy. Interview by Suzan Sherman. BOMB, Spring, 1997, 67-70.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Towers, Robert. “Don’t Expect Too Much of Men.” Review of At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, by Amy Hempel. The New York Times, March 11, 1990, sec. 7, p. 11.