We return to the late 20th century with this month’s story, Amy Hempel’s “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” This story was first published in 1983, and it is Hempel’s first and most widely anthologized. It serves as a poignant example of Hempel’s minimalist style and deep tenderness, features that have marked much of her writing. Here the emotional clarity and force of the story is perpetually deferred, filtered through the minutia of media and contemporary anxiety until it is almost, but not quite, unintelligible. Yet it still finds us in the end.

“The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is about big themes, friendship, fear, death, and grief foremost among them. These are deeply human themes, of course, and Hempel’s characters, sparsely shaded as they might be, are round and human to a fault, conflicted in their desire to live up to the expectations of love and friendship while navigating the harsh realities of life and death.  Our narrator finds herself at just such a crossroads. The story recounts the last days spent with her best friend, a chronically ill patient interned at a Los Angeles hospital. As the details emerge and the situation gains definition, we realize that the narrator’s visit is long overdue; that she is seeking redemption for her absence; that she fears directly acknowledging the facts of her friend’s condition due to the pain it will cause her, the narrator; and that this fear, and the selfishness that it engenders, could potentially doom her to a life where the immediate truths of existence, as upsetting as they may be, are never honestly experienced or accepted.

The emotional climax of the story is postponed to its conclusion, and comes, fittingly enough, embedded in one of the many “useless” anecdotes the narrator relays to her friend throughout. The story of the chimp and its education in the language of grief is a particularly revealing one, and one that I believe deserves our careful consideration. How can we talk about something as monumentally awful as the death of a loved one? The narrator, it seems, doesn’t really know; her incapacity seems to mirror the incomprehension of the mother chimp at the story’s end. Perhaps Hempel is suggesting that there simply is no way to fully transmit such deep sorrow, and that looking back is always a lost cause. Words and stories told after the fact are, ultimately, pale imitations of the reality they hope to represent; they are useless when it comes to relieving naked pain or sharing fear. For those tasks one’s presence, perhaps, is the only thing a person can, or should, offer to those in need.

Happy reading,

Andrew Bennett