SING TO IT: New Stories. By Amy Hempel. Scribner. 149 pages. $25.
“Sing to It” is Amy Hempel’s first collection of new stories in 14 years. The good news is that she’s still funny, still sneaking in the oblique details that move an ordinary story — if there is such a thing in Hempel’s world — from "ho hum" to "oh ho!" Most of Hempel’s stories feature monologists who try to walk the line between disclosure and withholding. They long to spill their heartbreaking news, but they are driven to soften it with witty remarks and devastating asides.
Hempel’s empathy with the secret lives of her characters is epic. As they go about their ordinary activities — spying on the neighbors, cleaning up storm debris, loving their dogs — she imagines the secrets that hum below the surface.
The title story is Hempel’s sort of masterpiece. Less than a page, it imagines a couple who are approaching the death of the husband. What can anyone do in the face of eternity, or nothing? “No metaphors!” says the husband, “Nothing is like anything else.” He then begins to speak in metaphors: “Make your hands a hammock for me.” The soft support of the hand-hammock rocks the husband as he hangs between worlds. When the wife speaks, she modifies the husband’s line: “No metaphors! No one is like anyone else.”
The story and the collection insist that each one is irreplaceable. In the end, the wife speaks: “I made my hands a hammock for him. My arms the trees.” Making something good (a support and a last bit of shade) out of something bad, the wife enacts the spirit of the proverb she teaches her spouse. “Sing to it. The Arab proverb. When danger approaches, sing to it.”
“Sing to It” might be the title of any story in Hempel’s collection. Her most famous story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” is that incongruous thing, a sad and sometimes hilarious story about a friend’s death from leukemia. It set the stage for her career — death, or some other danger, is often in the wings. In her Paris Review interview, Hempel talks about her own tendency “to embellish, to mythologize,” adding, “it’s in us.”
“Chicane,” another memorable story in “Sing to It,” recounts the embellished life of the narrator’s Aunt Lauryn, a classic American girl abroad, “a passionate girl with evenly tanned skin.” Thirty years before her niece revives her story, Lauryn meets and marries a race car driver in Lisbon. Their charmed early marriage falters when they move home to the states (“Lauren made the classic mistake of taking the exotic home”). Everything in the story comes down to the last night of Lauryn’s life, when she calls her mother on the phone and asks her to stay on the line while she sings herself to sleep. The story is racy and tragic, all its power coming from the telling and re-telling of worn-down facts.
“Moonglow” tells of a different sort of revival. Every Hempel collection should have at least one dog story. On a magical night, the narrator looks out the window and sees a full moon with something extra, a rare “moonbow,” like a rainbow, only white. Out in the yard, she’s joined by a small bear who watches the moonbow with her. The bear plays with the toys of her dog, dead last month. He sips from her dog’s bowl, swipes at his plush toy.
When the bear rolls on his back under the white rainbow, she sees his feet, familiar and identical to her dog’s. “Logan?” she says and begins to tell him everything that’s happened since she lost him. That’s it, but the tenderness is what lingers. Something seems to get Hempel’s characters through.
In “Fort Bedd,” Hempel’s couple faces “not death but life,” sometimes just as scary. How do they sing to it? The narrator thinks of trees and imagines driving to a nursery to buy one and plant it at the edge of a field: “Plant windbreak, woods, a forest, a glen.”
Many of the stories here don’t have a traditional narrative arc. The have loss; they have laughter in spite of everything. Hempel closes “Sing to It” with the novella “Cloudband,” a jittery story that scatters its revelations. The narrator is in exile. For years, she taught at a private girls’ school in New York City. One day, she invited some girls over for tea and ended up snorting some coke with them. In the story’s present time, she lives in Florida, where she works as a home health care nurse and spends her off hours fighting rampant natural growth.
The real story is what goes on in her mind, thoughts that play counterpoint to all the fertility around her. She once drove a car with the following bumper sticker: “I brake just like a little girl.” Digression, speculation, terror, glory: Hempel’s narrators shuffle through the moods of their lives, remembering but not regulated by the past. They laugh it all off and choose pliable, singing futures.