There are three stories I have trouble discussing without choking up, which is rough, because they are three stories I practically evangelize about every chance I get. “Age of Faith” by Alice Munro is one, “Anniversary” by Daphne Kalotay is the second, and “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel is the third. The endings of these three stories absolutely slay me. In the case of “In the Cemetery…” I know I am not alone–it is widely anthologized and a friend who recently read it on my recommendation cried a little when she thanked me for the suggestion.
My dad does not understand why a person would want to read a story, or watch a movie, or see a piece of art, that is upsetting. There is enough of that in real life, he says. This is a hard position to argue with, I think. There is too much of that in “real” life! But then how to explain why I go back and read, re-read, re-re-read “In the Cemetery…”?
First, it is very funny before it is sad. There are details living inside of this story you will never see anywhere else, except, perhaps, everywhere. Amy is the queen of making the specific universal. The friendship between the two women characters is alive in every line. Each sentence works in a hundred different directions, giving us the fullest picture of two lives inside of only eleven pages. Several elements–a fear of flying, a fear of dying, useless trivia, a talking chimp and California earthquakes–are braided together, weaving in and out of each short paragraph, carrying the reader along, until, inevitably, the chain they form comes to an end.
Maybe I read it over and over to figure out how Amy makes me feel so much, and so strongly. I start the story with the intention of dissecting, of analyzing her every move, but then I find myself at the end, swallowing hard, staring blurry-eyed at the page, concluding as I had every time before that there was no method, no trick, no system that could be pulled apart–the story was created by magic.
Amy was my professor a couple of years ago, and in the past month, I’ve run into her three times. Seeing her yesterday made me think of this story again, but also makes me worry a little because Dan suggested she might think I’m stalking her–if you happen to see this post, Amy, I swear, I’m not! I just love this story and New York is a small place sometimes.
Notice, by the way, I didn’t give much away about the actual story here. It is really important that you all go out, read it yourselves and let me know what you think!