A quick study of literature will reveal that most literary contents have a background in human emotions. This study would dig out feelings like sadness, joy, love, anger, and more, as the force behind various creative reflections. They form the basis for inspiration—the reason behind shedding one’s heart into syllables and lines. This is prevalent in poetry, drama, fiction, and heightens in the non-fiction genre.
The Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary defines non-fiction as writing that relies on actual events and facts, in place of invented stories. A common feature of this genre is a depiction of the life of the writer. One would see signs of personal grieving, momentous sadness, joy, or conflict. In Amy Hempel’s “In the cemetery where Al Jolson is buried”, the non-fiction techniques play a role in defining the characters in the story and their states of mind.
She is a writer from Chicago, Illinois, and popular for her works in fiction and non-fiction. Amy Hempel published her pioneering story collection, “Reason to Live”, in 1985. This piece awarded her the Commonwealth Club of California Silver Medal. Amy doubles as the author of “At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom” and “Tumble Home”.
She is also a coeditor of “Unleashed: Poems by Writer’s Dogs”, an anthology of poems, and a contributing editor at Bomb Magazine. Her stories appear in Vanity Fair, Harper’s, The Quarterly, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. Also, they feature in The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction.
The short story first featured in the TriQuarterly magazine, reissued in Editors’ Choice: New American Stories before appearing in Amy Hempel’s first published collection of stories, “Reasons to Live”, in 1985. The piece is her most controversial story to date as it displays the author’s ability to fuse an expressive style (pathos) with humor (Howard, 2001).
As the story unfolds, the narrator is prompted by a friend, to tell her things she would not mind forgetting. This friend is in a hospital bed, near Los Angeles, California. The narrator, in response to her friend, begins telling her trivia. As she proceeds, she becomes uncomfortable by a camera standing at a corner of the room. This makes the narrator self-conscious. She stops.
The camera serves as a monitor in the Intensive Care Unit. It helps the nurses watch the patients from the hallway. Her friend tells her to continue. The camera will always be there, so she will be used to it soon.
The narrator continues to weave stories for her friend. But the friend grows bored and asks her for “something else”. The narrator switches the tempo. She will always have something else for her friend, she thinks. Then, she moves to the tale of the first Chimp who learns sign language but uses it to lie about its teacher.
The friend is joyful with this story. However, the narrator warns that it may have a sad ending. Her friend then asks her to stop. Both are wearing protective masks. The narrator thinks they look like outlaws. Outlaws in a movie or a TV show. She informs that the hospital’s exterior has been used for a lot of TV shows.
A nurse comes to make her rounds, and the friend introduces the narrator as “the Best Friend”. There is a feeling within the narrator. Of joy and intimacy. Using “the” in place of “my” shows a solid bond between them; that her friend and the nurse had shared stories about her. She thinks whether the nurse might see her as weird — why it took her so much time to visit the hospital. Her friend has been there for two months. The drive was not so far, but that was her first visit.
The narrator recollects the memory of a friend who works at the mortuary and talks a lot about his experiences. On the sickbed, the friend toys with the concept of suicide and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. She requests for the end of the chimp story. The narrator does not give an answer. Her friend asks for another story about any animal. She proposes seeing-eye dogs. The narrator jokes with this by saying “hearing-ear dogs”. The friend laughs.
A doctor appears. It is The Good Doctor, as opposed to The Bad Doctor. The latter is businesslike and hardly jokes around while the former is friendly. The narrator leaves. When she returns, they have placed a second bed close to the patient. She learns that her friend wants her beside her. She read to her about the trivia section in the day’s paper. Later, the narrator goes downstairs to get food. When she gets back, they lie on the beds, their feet intertwined, and their hearts beating in unison. The narrator misses her friend already.
They fall asleep and, when they awake, the narrator says she has to depart. Yet, she does not set a time for her return. This upset her friend and, in anger, she hastens out of bed, leaves the room, causing confusion in the hallway. The narrator goes outside to see two nurses rubbing her friend’s back to soothe her.
The story forwards to after her friend has died and is buried in the same funeral grounds as Al Jolson. The narrator promises to enroll in a class to quell her worst fear—aerophobia—fear of flying. She is also scared of earthquakes. She remembers the trivia and how her friend’s death unfolded and debates how she will tell or alter the story for others. She might tell them she stayed through the night.
Most stories are a product of writing prompts. “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” is a short story Amy Hempel wrote, as part of a fiction-writing workshop that responded to a writing prompt to tell a tale of “the thing you will never live down.” It is like a semi-autobiography. The author dedicates it to Jessica Wolfson, a friend of hers who died of a terminal illness.
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