Spring brings two new story collections from masters of the form—one new and one well-established.
Sing to It is the much-anticipated new collection from Amy Hempel, her first since 2006, and Lot by Bryan Washington is a stellar debut set among the diverse neighborhoods of Houston. Both collections share a generosity of spirit rooted in our common humanity and the social desire to connect.
Hempel is known for her brevity, and of the 15 stories here, 10 are less than three pages long. In some cases, an idea is succinctly stated and explored in less than three paragraphs. But there’s nothing minimal about the contents. Hempel packs a great deal into the briefest of fictions, creating balanced and nuanced stories of longing, love and loss.
Despite her creative thrift, it’s in the longer stories that Hempel’s empathy and ready wit shine. In “A Full-Service Shelter,” inspired by the author’s real-life dedication to animal advocacy, she repeats the opening phrase of each paragraph to drive home both the passion and futility in caring for abandoned, abused dogs. Most affecting is the novella “Cloudland,” about an unnamed middle-aged woman who is haunted by memories of a daughter given up for adoption. These recollections are made more painful when she hears a horrible rumor about the long-shuttered agency. The narrative shifts subtly in time, circling back and jumping ahead, revealing the character’s tenacity as well as her despair.
Washington’s brilliant and visceral Lot lives up to the considerable amount of buzz it has already received. Each story is named for a different Houston neighborhood, and roughly half concern a young man whose life is complicated by an adulterous father, a drug–hustling brother and a growing attraction to men. Though this main character is refreshingly straightforward about his sexuality, his relatives respond with shame, embarrassment and, in the case of his brother, violence.
The remainder of the stories emanate from locations across the sprawling Texan city. In “Alief,” through a first-person plural voice, neighborhood residents consider their role as they collectively witness a love affair that’s turned violent. “Peggy Park” recalls the pleasures of a pickup baseball team. In the book’s centerpiece story, “Waugh,” the two main characters are a young hustler and his pimp, and the focus is less on the hazards of their profession than on the bonds of trust and friendship that exist between them. Washington’s strong ear for dialogue and his lack of sentimentality serve these stories well.
Though their styles are different, Washington and Hempel capture both the harshness and the tenderness of the world. The stories are romantic but not corny and fiercely moral without being judgmental, capturing the complexities that make up a community.