“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” initially appeared in Amy Hempel’s first collection of short stories titled Reasons to Live (1985), a group of stories that address various scenarios of coping, with this story, according to Hempel, providing the foundation for the rest. Ever since it was first published, the story has been well received critically, including being reprinted in many collections such as the Norton Anthologies, which are frequently used in college classrooms. Hempel’s style of writing is considered minimalistic, because she does not focus on the character and plot development traditionally associated with stories; instead, the focus is on presenting an experience as it happens without any editorial comments by one of the characters or the story’s narrator. Classification with minimalism places her squarely with Mary Robison as an heir to Raymond Carver, working in a narrative voice that echoes the voices of writers such as Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, and Samuel Beckett in his early works. Her uniqueness, however, lies in her use of humor to lighten the darkness of the situation that she is portraying.
This story centers on an unidentified first-person narrator, who is the best friend of a similarly unidentified terminally ill patient in an intensive care ward at a generically identified hospital in the Hollywood area (the hospital is described as the one appearing under the opening credits of the Marcus Welby, M.D. television show, which ran from 1969 to 1976). The narrator makes small talk to distract her friend, telling her, for example, about the first chimp that was taught to talk using sign language but was caught in a lie. The narrator had taken two months to visit her friend because she had feared looking death in the face, yet the two friends joke about topics such as the “Five stages of grief” defined by Dr. Elisabeth KüblerRoss in 1969. When the friend finally dies or, as the narrator euphemistically puts it, is “moved to the cemetery, the one where Al Jolson is buried” (349), the narrator starts to face her own fears by enrolling “in a ‘Fear of Flying’ class” (349). As the story ends, the narrator ponders how she might retell the events of her friend’s death in the future by adjusting the details that she chooses to include as part of her own “language of grief” (350).
Hallett, Cynthia Whitney. “Amy Hempel.” In Minimalism and the Short Story—Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and Mary Robison. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellon, 1999, 67–99.
Hempel, Amy. “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone, 343–350. New York: Scribner–Simon & Schuster, 1999