January 4, 2011 - 5:00 am
Death and tragedy haunt the short, short stories in Amy Hempel’s first story collection “Reasons to Live” (1985) like empty chairs at the table.
And there is no steak, no potatoes, no substantial courses atop Hempel’s literary table. Instead the reader is treated to tapas — bite-size delicacies of exquisite flavors — a literary lunch that only a truly talented minimalist (or miniaturist) writer could cook up successfully.
And underneath the table: a dog or two lay near the diners’ feet, ready to catch any falling morsels. (Dogs trot through these stories in the comfortable and presumptuous way any well-loved pet wanders a home.) But, it boils down to the sentence for Hempel. Each sentence is crafted with care and precision to maximize the collective effect of denotation, connotation, rhythm and prose — creating art, illuminating truths and soliciting chuckles amidst the interspersed sighs and smiles her stories evoke.
Common daily occurrences make up much of Hempel’s plots. In “Tonight is a Favor to Holly,” the narrator prepares for a blind date. “Going” revolves around a patient eating a hospital meal. “When It’s Human Instead of When It’s Dog” is about a maid concerned with cleaning a carpet stain. “Today Will Be a Quiet Day” accompanies a father and his children on car ride. There are no grand adventures amongst these quiet stories. In fact, they might even be mundane if not for the potent human and emotional undercurrents that whisper at the reader from between the lines.
While everyday commonalities take precedent on Hempel’s printed page, her stories work to coax and seduce profound revelations within the reader’s mind, and it is these revelations that form the real substance of Hempel’s work. It’s as if she’s softly tickling her reader’s subconscious, light fingers tapping to awaken a profound consciousness of death and tragedy and the human condition. The wonder of these powerful revelations is that the author unearths them with such subtlety, in so few words, and so few pages.
Hempel’s much acclaimed and much anthologized “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is found among the stories here and for this story alone this book is worth reading. Slowly. The plot revolves around the narrator’s visit to the hospital where her friend is dying. The charm is the light banter, the comfortable relationship, the humor these friends share. The tragedy is the eminent death of the patient and the narrator’s failure as a friend, her cowardice in face of her loss, in the face of her friend’s need. The tragic sentence is “Make it useless stuff or skip it.” Another is “Baby, come hug, Baby come, fluent now in the language of grief.”
Yes, in the end it is the sentences that really shine within this work. It is the sentences that the reader will take away with her as she sets aside the book. The sentences she will repeat for others and scrawl out in her journal. The sentences that will come back to her as she’s doing the dishes or working in the garden. The sentences she will repeat over and over in her mind for the sheer pleasure of reliving them. Sentences like this: “A blind date is coming to pick me up, and unless my hair grows an inch by seven o’clock, I am not going to answer the door.” And this: “I can’t help it. I get rational when I panic.” And this: “He wondered how we know what happens to us isn’t good.” Sentences that stand strong all alone and when gathered together form a masterpiece.
“Reasons to Live” is a book best read slowly, repetitively, and with serious attention — the way one might enjoy gourmet tapas, lingering over each morsel, chewing and tasting to seek out flavors. And for the sheer pleasure of the experience.