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Picks and Pans Review: At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom

updated 04/02/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/02/1990 01:00AM

by Amy Hempel

At her worst, Hempel seems like James Michener's evil twin from another dimension, writing fiction that is so cryptic, so verbally parsimonious as to be fragmentary. This short-story collection, her first book in five years, includes only 132 pages—and 41 of them are either totally blank or carry only a title.

Nobody wants to buy prose by the pound, but Hempel's minimalist approach often makes her stories seem like movie trailers: There's good stuff but not enough to be entertaining or enlightening.

When Hempel gives herself room, she creates wickedly vivid characters and moods. In the relatively expansive (11-page) "The Day I Had Everything," she sketches an informal club-therapy group seemingly devoted to viewing death in different ways. It's also a club, where the buffet includes beer and crullers, where women say things like "Many men named Pablo entered my life this week."

This is a writer who can, indeed, effectively compress ideas: "The day of the wedding, before a SWAT team of beauticians arrived to do the bride, the young son from the groom's first marriage gave his new stepmother a picture he had drawn of a scowling Green Beret with a sword through his flaming head."

Too much compression, though, and you end up with a black hole, which is something else altogether, but hardly literature. (Knopf, $17.95)

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