Amy Hempel knows how to load a one-liner with meaning—”The house next door was rented for the summer to a couple who swore at missed croquet shots”—but for a fictional world rife with unfaithful men and made bearable by the loyalty of pooches, it’s appropriate that her sense of humor is fundamentally shaggy dog.
“I leave a lot out when I tell the truth,” warns one of her narrators. It’s typical of her characters to rush into things, then slam the brakes and reconsider. The effect is exhilarating—and also dangerous, as her numerous crash survivors testify from the contemplative safety of their hospital beds. “The impact knocked two days out of my head, but all you can see is the cut on my chin,” one observes. “I total a car and get twenty stitches that keep me from shaving.”
The Collected Stories is nothing less than the literary event of the year. Only The Dog of the Marriage, the most recent of Hempel’s four books (all are included here), is in print. Chuck Palahniuk reportedly spent $75 for a first edition of her 1985 debut, Reasons to Live; I paid $50. Neither total necessarily represents how badly we wanted to read those stories, how much we would have spent to get them. But it is the kind of pointlessly quantifiable detail Hempel might admire, like the $12.43-per-month increase in car insurance that one of her speed demons incurs for knocking a woman off the back of a motorcycle so hard that 15 years later she still can’t bend one knee.
Fans cite Hempel’s mastery of compression and the well-crafted sentence, hallmarks of a Gordon Lish protégé. And it’s true, you can get lost for days in her seductive minimalist syntax. But her concrete use of language belies the specter of sadness underneath. Hempel’s bruising stories remind us that there are long melancholic chapters in our internal lives for which even she has no words.