Next week’s story is Safe, Somewhere by Baird Harper

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Rated Explicit

Guess who’s back! After a long vacation driving around Europe, Gerald joins us for a discussion of the short story, In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried. It sounds like he had a great trip and will soon write a post about his adventures. This week’s story touches on themes of death in a novel and brutally transparent way. It’s a story that touched us and brought up topics such as guilt, details in writing, and what it is that makes you trust a writer. I hope you enjoy this discussion as much as I did.

Don’t forget, to rate the story! For the history of our goofy system, see Anais’ post “Read Short Stories or Ray Bradbury Cries.” If you want to design a Bradberry, we’d love to see it.

Listeners gave last week’s story “The Servant’s Daughter” 2.75 Bradberries.

So tell us, on a scale of 1-6 Bradberries, how do you rate In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried? Tell us in the comments below or via voicemail, and we will give the final tally on the next episode.

Next week’s story is Safe, Somewhere by Baird Harper

8 comments on In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried – Amy Hempel – Literary Roadhouse Ep 23

  1. Gerald Hornsby says:

    Some great comments here! Thanks, guys.
    Yes, the communication thing was missed, but I didn’t think it was such a strong theme (that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it!) Amazing that it touched a number of readers, in different ways.

  2. Maria Concepcion says:

    Thank you Maya! for including me in the "genius" group haha. This made me think of an anecdote, I told one of my kindergarteners he was very smart and he said " Never in a million years has anyone said I was smart!" in a million years! and he’s 5! lol, I also doubt that because he’s in the Gifted and Talented program in school 🙂

    I read the comment from Todd and I have to say I missed the theme of communication, but after he pointed out some lines from the story I can see that, good insight!

    What I got from the story as I related it to my own personal experience is that it was about relationships, especially a close friendship, and fear.

    The first thing the narrator establishes is her fear. She is conscious that she’s living her life in fear, and it is fear that has prevented her from visiting her friend, even though it’s obvious from the story that they are very close.

    The sick woman is also aware of her friend’s fears, this is why she tries to keep the conversation light. It’s for her friend’s sake and not for her own.This is the way they have always related to each other, accepting the friend’s limitations due to fear. This is why she never asks her friend to stay, she just has the bed put next to her, in hope that her friend would seize the opportunity and stay. I say opportunity because I think this is her intention to give her friend a chance to conquer her fear and do the right thing. She feels devasted when her friend leaves and part of the devastation is her disappointment in her friend.

    This was a defining moment in the author’s/narrator’s life. I can see this in the honesty and rawness of the story. I don’t know if I can call this guilt, I see it more as regret.

    I was able to connect to these characters in a personal level, therefore I’m giving it 5 Bradberries!

  3. Todd Williams says:

    ps I was trying to figure out the Al Jolson reference in the title and found this on Wikipedia:
    "Jazz historians have described Jolson’s blackface and singing style as metaphors for Jewish and black suffering throughout history."
    His first film (The Jazz Singer) was also the first full length picture with sound.

    Perhaps the title is referencing something like: "no more sign language to express pain?"

    1. Possibly. Or more obtusely, the reference is to the act of the story itself, which gives a voice/sound to something on which she’s been silent for years.

      1. Todd Williams says:

        Yeah That is less obtuse, actually, and is closer to what I was trying to say but failed. Luckily I have a convertible parked outside.

  4. Todd Williams says:

    I found this story to be about communication more than anything else and ultimately about the limitations of language to deal with something as serious as death (as we all know when it comes to figuring out what to say at a funeral). While reading I found the constant mindless banter to be annoying but realized it was a big part of the story and that it was covering the fear for both women.

    I’m not sure if it was the author’s intent but it seems nearly every paragraph is about some form of communication (or lack of it). From the trivial talk in the hospital room to the catcalling low riders on the beach and the hearing-ear dogs and ultimately to the chimp who can only speak the ‘language of grief’ in sign language, the theme of communicating is always present.

    I didn’t really like the story but can’t pinpoint why. I found the technique a little jumpy (I, she, who is it we are talking about now?) and didn’t feel it was really cohesive. I empathize with the authornarrator because while she maybe should have “sucked it up” and dealt with the situation, she ultimately didn’t and is now living with the guilt. Giving in to fear can be some of the most guilt inducing situations in life. Like the time I let a crow eat my corndog because he was so big and black.

    I really liked how these lines seemed to fit together in examining the motive behind the narrator’s flight:

    “ 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 bought off by catastrophe.”

    “I had a convertible in the parking lot. Once out of 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, life, and stay up all night.”

    I do think it was a memorable story though and could probably find a lot of gems hidden in the layers on repeated readings. Too bad Anais has me hooked on Snow Crash lol…

    4 Bradberries for me

    1. Great comment re: the communications theme. I didn’t catch that, but I definitely see it now that you mention it.

      As for the commentary on fear, I agree. We didn’t dive too deeply into it in the podcast (we got stuck in other enchanting rabbit holes!) I don’t think we can judge the narrator anymore harshly than she is already judging herself in the telling of this story. I am satisfied she is a good person, gripped by fear. We can all sympathize.

      " Giving in to fear can be some of the most guilt inducing situations in life. Like the time I let a crow eat my corndog because he was so big and black."

      You and this narrator are birds of a feather.

      What do you think of Snow Crash? Where are you in the story? Hiro Protagonist: greatest or lamest name?

      I feel like I should warn you that something about the ending feels like a very mild let down to a thrilling set up, but I’d read it over again for that set up.

      1. Todd Williams says:

        So far it is pretty sweet. If I had never read any William Gibson I would be even more into it. I am at the part where the biker Raven has left something nasty behind at the Vitaly concert.
        Pathetically, it was about 4 days after I started the book that I realized that Hiro=hero at which point I thought it was the greatest name ever.
        I find I am almost always let down by endings of books but thanks to you I am prepared and now my enjoyment of the entire book will be diminished somewhat ;p

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