By Leah Greenblatt
March 28, 2019 at 08:45 AM EDT
Riverhead Books; Scribner

Stories hardly have any rules, except one: The telling needs to end somewhere short of whatever qualifies as a novella. Otherwise they’re free to do almost anything, which can sometimes leave the reader feeling like a kind of literary Goldilocks — this one too hot or too cold, too random, too rambling, or too fleeting to mean anything at all.

But oh, when they get it just right! And two new collections — one from a celebrated master of the form, the other a high-profile debut — come teasingly, intriguingly close. Amy Hempel’s Sing to It trails its author’s vaunted reputation behind it like an airplane banner; widely awarded and anthologized, she’s the kind of writer who gets mentioned in the same breath as Lorrie Moore or George Saunders — rightly famous for the clarity and impact of her lean, declarative prose. Many of the entries here are only a few spare paragraphs, often not even enough to fill a single page. “The Orphan Lamb” is a tiny jewel of brevity — a perfect snapshot, everything clean and sharp and necessary. Others, like “The Doll Tornado,” feel more like blurry Polaroids of objects you wish you had more context for; is that an albino alligator, or just an overexposed elbow?

There’s more to chew on in longer pieces like “The Chicane,” a woman’s clear-eyed recollection of a doomed, beautiful aunt; or the raw-nerved “Greed,” in which a wife indulges her obsession with the mistress — “many years older than my husband, running on the fumes of her beauty” — whose happy, oblivious narcissism has managed to explode both her marriage and sanity. Mortality runs through nearly every story — illness, injury, catalogs of lost and broken things — but there’s a cheerful fatalism to it all, too; a sort of so-what serenity prayer. The final entry and centerpiece, “Cloudland,” traces a schoolteacher’s piecemeal memories of the baby she gave up for adoption years before — 63 pages of swampy Florida heat and striking imagery that don’t quite coalesce until the last, indelible line.

Bryan Washington is no stranger to the last-line thunderbolt, though he sometimes uses it more like a sucker punch. His Lot is really a novel in disguise, its elements broken up into pieces but nearly all set in the heart of the same Houston neighborhood where a boy living between two cultures — his mother is black, his father Hispanic — struggles to come to terms with his fractured family, his sexuality, and the harsh realities of race and poverty in America. That makes the book sound much grimmer than it is; Lot spills over with life — funny, tender, and profane. In “Shepherd,” a sad, glamorous call girl teaches her young cousin to appreciate Chekhov and Virginia Woolf; in the magical-realism-kissed “Bayou,” two friends find a chupacabra, a sleepy, pliant creature with claws “like glossed talc.” Much like Tommy Orange or Junot Díaz, Washington takes characters often consigned to the literary margins and drags them to the center — not as exotic objects of curiosity but as whole human beings, messy and defiant and drawn in full, vibrant color.

Lot: A-

Sing to It: B+

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