‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried’ by Amy Hempel

If I could only read one story for the rest of my life it would be this. The fact that this was the first story she ever wrote – the product of a prompt by Gordon Lish in his writing class – is nothing short of miraculous. The prompt was to write a story that would ‘dismantle’ their sense of self, and Hempel wrote about a friend who died too young of cancer. The narrator is flawed, brutally honest and unsentimental (almost willing us to dislike her) But, by the end, the voice is one undone by loss and a gnawing regret. It’s a masterclass in the importance of blank space on the page, of what isn’t being said. Hempel herself stated “You want to be underneath the bleachers in a story, looking for what’s left”. 

First published in TriQuarterly Magazine, 1983, and collected in Reasons To Live, 1985, Harper Collins. Read it online here

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