The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
by Amy Hempel
Scribner, 432 pp., $27.50
Though Amy Hempel's "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolsen Is Buried" may be one of the most widely admired and anthologized short stories of the last 20-odd years, Reasons to Live, the 1985 volume of her own work in which it is collected, remains out of print (and at an alleged market rate of $75, a pricy proposition). Unlike Raymond Carver, to whom she's often compared, Hempel lacks the advantage of a star-studded and well-liked Robert Altman adaptation to help advertise her wares. Chalk it up to the perennially lousy market for short fiction or the (mostly welcome) rejection of that 1980s vogue for literary minimalism in which Hempel first rose to prominence, but the absence from bookstore shelves of her collections previous to last year's The Dog of the Marriage has now been redressed with The Collected Stories, a single volume containing this remarkable writer's entire output of published fiction to date.
Of course, it's nice to find all these stories in one place, the better to trace the shape of a career. Accumulating stolen moments rather than dramatizing incidents, Hempel's influential style of extracting character and narrative fragments from the flow of time is now common practice, but the particular mixture of radical realism and poetic mystery she achieves remains very much her own and continues to develop and surprise. Taut little sentences tumble forward like Groucho Marx free-associating an assault on Ernest Hemingway (or Raymond Carver) as characters struggle to circumnavigate the evident absurdity of their own and others' emotions, to little avail. What at first seems glib and evasive (if hilarious) sharpens into a shocking emotional acuity that, if anything, occasionally errs on the side of sentimentality, a quality eminently forgivable from such an ardent dog lover (there are a lot of dogs in this book).
One of the great living stylists of short fiction, it's easy to see why Hempel has inspired a kind of cultish devotion among some writers (Rick Moody and Chuck Palahniuk among them, for better or worse). This book could send you off to write short stories, not because she makes it look easy (far from it), but because in story after story, she makes the form feel like the most emotionally precise and purely pleasurable kind of writing there is.