In Amy Hempel's first collection of short stories, "Reasons to Live," there are mud slides, earthquakes, fires, floods and dead dogs by the side of the highway that might be yours (but aren't). There are insanity, death and adults who say to themselves, "you think you're invisible because you closed your eyes." There is even a child who tells his father and sister, as they sit stalled in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, "I think it's the other way around . . . I think if the quake hit now the bridge would collapse and the ramps would be left." You feel like saying, let's be careful out there.
Yet in spite (or is it because?) of this sublethal environment, Hempel's characters have passed the point of breathing in sharply. It's not that they're numb, exactly; it's just that they seem to embrace the notion that the natural tendency of things is to fall apart. As one of the characters in "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried" says of another, "She would be the first to say how little it takes to make a thing all wrong."
Their pleasures are small. In the story just mentioned, the nameless narrator responds to (what appears to be) her dying friend's situation by confiding to us:
"I had a convertible in the parking lot. Once out that room, I would drive it too fast down the Coast highway through the crab-smelling air. A stop in Malibu for sangria. The music in the place would be sexy and loud. They'd serve papaya and shrimp and watermelon ice. After dinner I would shimmer with lust, buzz with heat, vibrate with life, and stay up all night."
"Reasons to Live" thrives on collisions between matters evanescent and apocalyptic. In "Tonight Is a Favor to Holly," one of the book's best stories, the narrator wants us to know that "if you made me tell the truth, I'd have to say it's not a good thing. The people who live here, what you hear them say is "I'm supposed to, I'll try, I would have.
"There is no friction here.
"It's a kind and buoyant place.
"What you forget, living here, is that just because you have stopped sinking doesn't mean you're not still underwater."
This is essential Hempel. The characters in this landscape own disabled wills; theirs are the sorts of lives with no more edge than rum and Cokes, sand, low-riders and freeways to nowhere. Their grip is weak.
While fears course unremittingly through the 15 stories in "Reasons to Live," what they accumulate into is not apocalyptic mass but attitude, pose, weather. It's too much to believe that such inert people as populate Hempel's stories would react sharply to the Richter scale. Their preoccupation with natural disaster and other imaginable horrors is what quickens and enriches their generally despairing California lives. Mud slides and earthquakes are to these stories what a wash is to a watercolor.
Hempel's characters usually lack ambition, like the central character (most of the narrators are nameless) in "Tonight Is a Favor to Holly." She works at a travel agency whose motto is "We Never Knowingly Ruin Your Vacation," and she says, "If I can hold on to it, it's the job I am going to have until my parents die." If Christopher Lasch's "The Culture of Narcissism" could be made into a movie, casting could start here.
Literature of despair it may be, but "Reasons to Live" can also be pretty funny. The beginning of "Why I'm Here" begins:
" 'Name a time when you are happy,' is one of the questions. I am taking a test to find out what to do. The way to do this is to find out what you like. This is not obvious, the way it sounds. For example, the questions that say, 'Would you prefer . . . ' 'Would you prefer to: (a) Answer questions about what you do, (b) Answer questions about what you know, (c) Answer questions about what you think?'
"My answer is, 'Depends.' "
And then there's a visit to the Casa de Fruta Fruit Stand and Bait Shop where "everything is the size of something else: strawberries are the size of tomatoes, apples are the size of grapefruit, papayas are the size of watermelons. The one-day sale on cantaloupe is in its third week."
Seven of the 15 stories in "Reasons to Live" are four pages or less, and the weakest of them ("San Francisco," "The Man in Bogota") seem little more than creative-writing class exercises. But in stories like "Tonight Is a Favor to Holly," "Today Will Be a Quiet Day" and "Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep," Hempel makes small and cryptic moments explode with suggestion. There are enough such moments.