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

I read this story every day for an entire summer. I am not sure anymore what I was going through then but I am happy to report this story still makes me cry every time I read it. I love the first line: “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said, “Make it useless stuff or skip it.” I had not realized what an elegy could do until I read this piece. Hempel builds the story’s momentum by painstakingly bringing seemingly disparate details together. I also credit this with teaching me how much can be contained within a paragraph break.

First published in TriQuarterly Magazine, 1983, included in the collection Reasons To Live, 1985, Harper Collins. Read it online here

‘In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried’ by Amy Hempel

A story about a friendship between two women, one of who is terminally ill. One of my favourite things about Hempel’s story is how the location of Southern California is a character in and of itself, the chance of earthquake ever-present, the detail about the glass of water at the end becoming, for me, the most moving moment in the story. This story gives you only the barest essentials with which to interpret the feelings of grief and loss that pulse through the story, threaded through with Hollywood dread, a perfect elegy for a lost friend. 

Originally published in TriQuarterly Magazine, 1983, included in the collection Reasons To Live, 1985, Harper Collins. Read it online here

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

I have been recommending this short story to everyone recently. I first read it years ago, but then someone linked to it on Twitter and I was reminded of it all over again. Another body slam of a story, this one about friendship, the family we create for ourselves, if we are so lucky. I find it hard to even write about this story without feeling tearful, and Hempel does this because of her complete lack of sentimentality. It’s about loss, about death, but written so sparely, with a dark, dark humour, and with almost everything unsaid, unwritten, left for you in the gaps. It’s one of the most powerful, beautiful and harrowing stories about the love between friends that I’ve ever read.

“Oh, yes.
For her I would always have something else.”

First published in TriQuarterly magazine in 1983, included in Reasons to Live (Harper Perennial, 1985), and available to read online here