Review–Pictures of Houses with Water Damage

It’s just like Michael Hemmingson to be gone. Just when I wanted to thank him for his black Valentine’s Day messages.

There’s a world of hurt in his collection Pictures of Houses with Water Damage (Black Lawrence Press, 2010). It’s a numbed kind of hurt, the kind of pain felt after a breakup, whether you wanted to break up or not—or didn’t know what you wanted either way.


The numbed pain Hemmingson awakens can’t be cured with booze, with sex, with a new affair, though every one of his characters seems to try. They get an A+ for trying. But it’s the collection itself that holds the numbing properties and brings the cure.

The 21 stories show in kaleidoscopic form the life, as lives, of an individual—could be a man, a woman, both—confronting the fallout of unrepentant infidelity, unwanted pregnancy, alcohol dependence, failed marriage, more. We watch lives wrecked by emotional pain, rendered faithfully through a panorama of eyes: the cuckold, the cheatwife, the unforgotten wounded vet boyfriend, the lonely lurking neighbor, the half-grown child, the honest husband, the roommate.

These lives amid the detritus of failure are rendered in spare, revelatory prose. Take Cyclops: “The eye was lost in a freak fishing accident… A shining hook winked at him, swooped down and took his eye.” Brilliant muscle drives clean lines that use simplicity to explain the complex. In Adventure: how could his wife do that with a complete stranger? “Our marriage has dulled.” “Have there been others?” “Yes.”

I see the defining sentiment two ways. In Forbidden Scenes of Affection: “From the outside, there was nothing wrong with a man and a woman, naked, lying on a bed. But when you got the details, the scene became distorted, if not grotesque.” So many details. The woman, several weeks pregnant, lays with her lover. He’s not her only lover. After the baby comes, she becomes his lover again. The husband, the father, he is barely a person—he looks like a nice guy but he can be an asshole. “Sometimes he hits me.” Hemming son hasn’t fouled his lines with pity, not even for the cuckold. He gets what he gets, and so does his cheating pregnant wife.

The defining sentiment might, as well, be simply this: “Something always kills dreams.”

Is this a gift? It’s certainly a talent. It’s a dark art. I came to the end eager to write up something nice about the author, only to learn he’s passed. Just like Michael Hemmingson to leave me thirsty for more.

Michael Hemmingson: Pictures of Houses with Water Damage
Black Lawrence Press 2010

Here for more about the circumstances surrounding Hemmingson’s death.