The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

by Amy Hempel
ISBN: 0743291638

All four of Hempel’s books (Reasons to Live, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdon, Tumble Home, and The Dog of the Marriage) are contained in this this volume. Reading it all at once is a feast. It’s gluttony, really, but you probably won’t be able to help yourself either. It’s also a prize: inexplicably, some of her work had fallen out of print.

Hempel is the kind of writer other writers love: sentences to die for, but not the most prolific output on earth. (Though, if pressed, who wouldn’t want more stories from her?) In Stranger Than Fiction in an essay called “Not Chasing Amy” Chuck Palahniuk tells us:

At first, “The Harvest” looks like a laundry list of details. You have no idea why you’re almost weeping by the end of seven pages. You’re a little confused and disoriented. It’s just a simple list of facts presented in the first person, but somehow it adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Most of the facts are funny as hell, but at the last moment, when you’re disarmed by laughter, it breaks your heart.

She breaks your heart. First and foremost. That evil Amy Hempel. That’s the first bit Tom teaches you. A good story should make you laugh, and a moment later break your heart. The last bit is you will never write this well. You won’t learn this part until you’ve ruined a lot of paper, wasting your free time with a pen in one hand for years and years. At any horrible moment, you might pick up a copy of Amy Hempel and find your best work is just a cheap rip-off of her worst.

So, yes, Hempel is amazing. She can smack you up side the head, and you had no hint, no warning you should duck. Mostly these surprises are in the writing, the precise turn of phrase, though once it was because I recognized the story she was telling. Having a fictionalized piece of that from another point of view was jarring, but then good stories can result in twists in your gut, can’t they?

It seems wrong not to quote Hempel here, because she does really write lines to die for, the kind that are so good you want to babble about them to other people. Thing is, taken out of context (and perhaps coherency, it’s easy to get worked up once you start quoting) they just maybe sound not quite so genius as they do in the story, where they were made and belong.

Part of my reluctance, too, is that I want potential readers to have the pleasure for themselves. If you love short stories, good stories, go get this book. Whether you slowly savor it, or finish it as fast as you can hardly matters. You’ll be reading it again. Highly recommended.

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