At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom Richard Weems Book Lovers

book At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom

reviewed by Richard Weems

Published in Issue No. 41 ~ October, 2000

It’s almost too easy to start out this review with a metaphor based on a line
from a story in this book. Never mind that it’s a line from the best story in
here (“The Harvest”) and that it seems ample: “I leave a lot out when I tell
the truth.” This seems too easy a start, and it doesn’t feel all that original.
I’d only be repeating an idea some other reviewer must have come up with, an
idea that probably seemed cute at the time, and since I find most review writing
stale and tedious, I’d prefer to take a different route.

So let’s go with a reaction that feels more individuated: I read this book
four times before I could even hope to talk about it, half of those readings
accomplished in one train ride from Philadelphia to New York City (not all that
long an expanse, so you can imagine my intensity, for I am not that quick a
reader). Aside from the aforementioned quotation that I had hoped not
to aforemention, I doubt I could successfully pull out many more lines from
this collection of stories and have them sing out of context the way they do
in the deep fray of reading.

Hempel’s work thrives inside its context. Sentences and words and ideas and
syllables build upon each other—such as in a scene where slicing mosquito bites
becomes exquisite foreplay—creating moments of synergy between reader and text
that mere description or analysis can not hope to recapture. Perhaps my personal
reactions to this work stem from my recognition that reading Hempel makes me
mindful of my own aesthetics as an artist—makes me put my own demands as a reader
to the fore. This is very active, very front-brain reading, tinged with exquisite,
visceral pleasure-oddities, base humor, and deep sadness. This book is like
eating fresh-water eel: soft and palatable, firing neurons that make you feel
squishy and a little too wrapped up in the moment.

Give me a moment, and it is easy for me to jump up on any self-made lectern
and spout about the need to set alight the all-too-high refuse pile of stale
creativity in the world. “Elephant dung on the Virgin Mary! Huzzah!” If a “masterpiece”
does not provoke an immediate gut reaction, if we can only look at it with intellectual
distance, then make a place mat out of it and let it do something for us finally.

But Hempel’s work draws me from my lectern, as I ride on a train, somewhere
in the hinterlands of the Trenton, New Jersey area. I want to pull on people’s
sleeves and read lines aloud. The sheer relevance of Hempel’s fiction
had me sitting back and waiting for things to unfold. I was content to be patient,
certain each story would fulfill my needs. Any work of art that so reaches the
reader in the present deserves to remain available in the present. Discovering
that this book was out of print only put me on another lectern—this one facing
the printing press—so I could demand of it some conscience. Reading
is a lonely enough pastime without being limited by the publisher’s failure
to keep a fine book in print. “Spread the gospel” my artistic imp demands!

Choice moments from the Book of Hempel? Consider:

  • In “The Harvest,” a story worth painting on the wall, the narrator’s sad
    tale of surgery and litigation and the unwillingness to tell a story straight
    reaches a moment of pure breathlessness when the ending hinges on the tragic
    occupation of fishing for abalone.
  • I often despise the modern predilection for creating “quirky” characters.
    It’s exploitative and just plain cruel–as if most perpetrators of this act have
    any empathy for the freakish—and Hempel shows why in being the exception. In
    “The Most Girl Part of You,” Jack “Big Guy” Fitch is trying to crack his teeth
    and rides his bike into the back of a trash truck out of a sadness so deep it
    seems alien, yet Hempel’s treatment is more than accessible—it’s absolutely
  • A one-line tribute/damnation of the era of TV’s Dynasty: “Wednesday
    nights we watched a show where women in expensive clothes appeared on lavish
    sets and promised to ruin one another.”
  • This title: “To Those of You Who Missed Your Connecting Flights out of O’Hare.”
  • Mrs. Carlin, the animal lover of the title story, with whom you can’t help
    but be annoyed and for whom you are ready to cry.

Amy Hempel perhaps shows what is best about this style people want to call
minimalism. She leaves much out, but only through such restraint is she able
to tell the truth. Her characters perform in a theater
of great pathos. Hempel has enough compassion for them to let them insult us,
aggravate us or weep for us (or us them). And in every case, they have
something very directly to do with us—and not in any sentimental way. We may
want to deny a connection, but I think we’ll consistently fail, and if we don’t
fail, we’ll be cheating ourselves out of a damn good read.

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Richard K. Weems ( is the author of Anything He Wants, winner of the Spire Fiction Award and finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, and The Need for Character. His short story publications include North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Mississippi Review, Other Voices, Crescent Review, The Florida Review and The Beloit Fiction Journal. He will be teaching once again this MLK weekend at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway in Cape May, New Jersey.