Reasons to Live

reasons to liveBook by Amy Hempel

Annotation by Andrew Killmeier

Reasons to Live is a collection of fifteen very short stories. Some of these stories are literally two pages long. It is a testament to Hempel’s skill that she can create an impact in such a minimal space. If I had to describe the writing in one single word it would be breathtaking. This is not a word I often use.

The stories deal with grief and the fragility of life. Though the characters are often witty and warm, they hover above a chaotic abyss. Mudslides claim houses (“Tonight is a Favor to Holly”). A heart skips a beat giving the narrator pause to consider mortality (“The Tub”). A young man crashes his car while driving with binoculars held to his eyes (“Going”). Other stories mention earthquakes, fires, floods, cancer, and sleep apnea — uncontrollable factors that can change or more likely end a life.

This is a wonderful passage from “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried:”

What seems dangerous often is not — black snakes for example, or clear-air turbulence. While things that just lie there, like this beach, are loaded with jeopardy. A yellow dust rising from the ground, the heat that ripens melons overnight — this is earthquake weather. You can sit here braiding the fringe on your towel and the sand will all of a sudden suck down like an hourglass. The air roars. In the cheap apartments on-shore, bathtubs fill themselves and gardens roll up and over like green waves. If nothing happens, the dust will drift and the heat deepen till fear turns to desire. Nerves like that are only brought off by catastrophe.

This paragraph, more than any other, captures the essence of this collection. Thusly the title — Reasons to Live. Through the gambling uncertainty of day to day existence a person must move forward one way or another. Grief and fear are simply the wages of living and loving. In all of these stories Hempel addresses this struggle, and she does so with masterful simplicity.

“Nashville Gone to Ashes” is a story in first person perspective about a widow one year after the death of her veterinarian husband. She lives with several of the animals her husband once took care of. The narrator describes the animals’ personalities and behaviors as an extension of her now dead husband. She even receives flowers from the deceased on her anniversary — “love insurance” it’s called, her husband having paid the florist in advance to send a bouquet on the date. In the hands of a lesser writer this particular detail might come off as a maudlin ploy, but Hempel’s simple yet poetic words speak sincerity.

She often underplays the dramatic event as something that has happened in the past, the story unfolding like ripples around a long sunken stone. The stories “Celia is Back” and “Today Will Be a Quiet Day” both feature a father interacting with his young son and daughter. These stories are primarily driven by dialog. In both cases the characters never mention the absence of a mother. Instead we are left to guess about her estrangement or death. In just a few short pages, with merely a handful of dialog tags Hempel manages to convey the depth of the father-daughter-son bond, a tight triangle of reinforced love, a conspiracy to guard against grief.

“When It’s Human Instead of When It’s Dog” is a story about a house cleaner faced with a daunting task. She tries to remove a stain in the carpet where the lady of the house defecated in her death throes. Once again the reader is left with just the subtle human interactions in the wake of a catastrophic event. Hempel conveys the simplest details: the housecleaner’s attempts to remove the stain, her telephone conversations with other housecleaners to gather advice, the widower’s vacant stare, his clumsy attempt to make-up the bed, the fridge full of food sent from condolers. All of this comes together in a moving climax. The housecleaner, having failed to remove the stain, leaves five dollars of her forty dollar pay on the kitchen counter. Simple, sad and honest. The helplessness of humanity in the face of grief. But we do what we can. We find reasons to live.

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