Hempel, Amy 1951–
Hempel, Amy 1951–
PERSONAL: Born December 14, 1951, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Gardiner and Gloria Hempel. Education: Attended Whittier College, 1969–71, San Francisco State University, 1973–74, and Columbia University, 1981.
ADDRESSES: Home—New York, NY.
AWARDS, HONORS: Silver Medal, Commonwealth Club of California, 1986, for Reasons to Live; Pushcart Prize.
Reasons to Live (stories), Knopf (New York City), 1985.
At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (stories), Knopf, 1990.
(Editor, compiler and contributor) Unleashed: Poems by Writers' Dogs, Crown (New York City), 1995.
Tumble Home: A Novella and Short Stories, Scribner (New York City), 1997.
The Dog of the Marriage: Stories, Scribner (New York, NY), 2005.
Works represented in anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, 1986, and Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Contributor to periodicals, including Vanity Fair, Harper's, Mother Jones, Triquarterly, Vogue, Interview, and New York Times Magazine; contributing editor of Vanity Fair, 1985–86.
SIDELIGHTS: Amy Hempel has earned widespread distinction as the author of two acclaimed collections of short stories. Her first, Reasons to Live, is a rather brief volume of nearly one hundred thirty pages, yet it is comprised of fifteen tales. Critics have observed that these narratives, some numbering only one page in length, are written in an economical manner that nonetheless succeeds in conveying Hempel's quirky humor as well as her bleak worldview. Hempel's fictional realm is one of sadness and bittersweet consolations, and it is a world of natural catastrophe, automobile accidents, madness, and death. Among the more distinguished stories in Reasons to Live is "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried," where a woman desperately tries to distract her terminally ill friend by reciting various facts; "Tonight Is a Favor to Holly," which depicts the ironic existence of a woman devoted to what she calls "the beach life"; and "Nashville Gone to Ashes," about a veterinarian's widow who must take care of the animals she always resented in the wake of her husband's demise.
Upon its publication in 1985, Reasons to Live received attention as a provocative and disturbing story collection. Sheila Ballantyne, writing in the New York Times Book Review, declared that "at their best these stories are tough-minded, original and fully felt." Noting Hempel's minimalist technique, Ballantyne added, "In most of the stories that make up this collection, Amy Hempel has succeeded in revealing both the substance and intelligence beneath the surface of a spare, elliptical prose." More effusively, James Kaufmann reported in the Washington Post that "Hempel makes small and cryptic moments explode with suggestion." And New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, who described Reasons to Live as a volume of "astringent" stories, affirmed that for Hempel "even the smallest act, the tiniest gesture… can be an act of courage." Kakutani also noted that Hempel portrays her characters "with charity and understanding."
In her next story collection, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Hempel further refined her stylistically spare, narratively brief technique, thus prompting New York Times Book Review contributor Robert Towers to cast Hempel as a miniaturist rather than a minimalist. Hempel's fiction, Towers maintained, is marked "by an almost miraculous exactitude of observation and execution." Like the earlier book, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom is concerned with people coping—or, at least, surviving—in a world of sadness and mayhem. "The Harvest," for instance, concerns a woman maimed in a motorcycle accident, and "The Day I Had Everything" relates the activities within an organization of women who lament the loss of loved ones and the unrelenting nature of physical decay. In still another tale, "Lead Us Not into Penn Station," a narrator merely relates a day's observations and events in New York City—a wino bleeds, a man recalls fornicating with a household appliance, a blind man enters a bank and orders a sandwich—and then expresses their cumulatively overwhelming nature.
At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, which appeared in 1990, confirmed Hempel's stature as a unique storyteller. "The stories," Elizabeth Tallent wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "are … smartly observed, cryptically titled, the prose as tight as if it fears spilling a single drop." And Towers, in a New York Times Book Review assessment, lauded "the elegance and compactness" of Hempel's style and added, "What one cherishes in Amy Hempel are … her quirky sensibility and the beautifully honed verbal craft she brings to bear on the situations and themes that have attracted her amused and rueful eye." Towers acknowledged that Hempel manages to produce stories of both humor and sadness. He declared that in At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, "The combination of comedy and loss is pervasive." Philip Gourevitch made a similar observation in the Washington Post, commenting that "it is Hempel's great achievement in these stories that she always maintains compassion and keeps the laugh lines coming."
Hempel's minimalist style was again showcased in her 1997 novella, Tumble Home. The slim volume, which also contained stories as short as one paragraph long, gained the attention of New York Times reviewer Elizabeth Gleick, who found that "each story is written as if assembled from fragments of conversations or snatches of melody."
Gleick singled out pieces such as "Weekend," which examined the group dynamics of families vacationing at the beach, as fiction that "has much in common with poetry. Using only a few phrases, [Hempel] succeeds in evoking a mood or … even an entire summer at the shore." In "Housewife," the tale of an unfaithful married woman is told in a single sentence, prompting critic Claire Messud to declare in the Washington Post Book World that the author "unsettles our uncomfortable conceptions of 'story.'" (On the other hand, a Kirkus Review writer found the one-sentence story "just short and rather silly.")
The title novella of Tumble Home is a sort of free-association conversation in the form of a letter from young woman in a mental institution to the famous artist whom she may or may not have once met. In this longer work Chicago Tribune writer Andy Solomon found Hempel to be "at her most enigmatic and most lyrical." Solomon went on to note that "people attempting to find a plot in her fiction will be shocked. Even those attempting to find fiction in it will discover themselves in an exquisite but mysterious territory where, although the lines extend to the right margin, we sense ourselves in the presence of a poet."
Hempel moved from poetry-like fiction to poetry proper as editor of the 1995 collection Unleashed: Poems by Writers' Dogs, featuring works credited to the animal companions of such luminaries as Edward Albee, Maxine Kumin, John Irving, and Hempel herself. In Hempel's hands what "might have been nothing more than, well, doggerel—just another of those self-consciously cute cat and dog books that crowd the bookstore shelves" instead becomes "a summer treat, by turns endearingly funny and achingly tender," according to Polly Paddock in her Chicago Tribune review. Equally impressed was New York Times guest reviewer "Jacques," identified as the dog of novelist Daniel Pinkwater. While the critical canine noticed "a measure of contamination discernible in some of the selections, dogs talking about things no sensible [pooch] would ever think about," Jacques ultimately gave a paws-up to Unleashed: "I had a barking good time with this book. The compilers deserve to be given a croissant and have their ears scratched."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 39, Thomson Gale (Detroit), 1986.
Chicago Tribune, June 30, 1995; June 22, 1997.
Esquire, June, 1995, p. 44.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1997.
Los Angeles Times, April 4, 1985.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 11, 1990, pp. 2, 11.
Newsweek, April 28, 1997, p. 78.
New York Times, April 13, 1985.
New York Times Book Review, April 28, 1985; March 11, 1990, p. 11; June 4, 1995; July 27, 1997.
People, September 25, 1995, p. 43.
Tribune Books (Chicago), April 29, 1990, p. 6.
Washington Post, March 8, 1990.
Washington Post Book World, May 7, 1985; April 13, 1997.