In general, it’s good to ignore the elliptical testimonials that publishers print on the covers of books, but the condescending praise on the inside cover of Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City is important because it reflects exactly the prejudices that Jones seeks to dispel. Kirkus Reviews, for example, writes, “This debut collection of stories pulses with the lifeblood of the forgotten neighborhoods of Washington, D.C…. A skillful, elegiac collection, with remarkably little sociology.” The Library Journal writes, “Although these experiences will be unfamiliar to many readers, Jones instills humanity in his characters and stories.”

“Many readers”? “Forgotten neighborhoods”? In essence, Jones is to be praised because, even though these stories are about black people, they’re safe for white people too. The unhappy irony of his career is that he writes only about black Americans, but his readers—for reasons of “sociology,” of course—are mostly white. His task, practically speaking, is therefore to make the “unfamiliar” world of black America intelligible to white readers without transforming it into a cartoon. It’s discouraging to remember that Frederick Douglass faced the same problem.

But though it’s unfair to expect Jones or anyone else to speak for the multitude, he seems to take that role upon himself. His narrators are remote and authoritative. They see and know everything; they attempt to express themselves in grand terms; and they never make jokes. His story collections explore every aspect of black life in twentieth-century Washington, from gun violence to gospel music, and in these encyclopedic portraits of one urban community, they tell the story of a century of halting progress and intangible loss, a century during which “the cohesion born and nurtured in the South” has become a “memory.” With The Known World, a novel about a freed slave who comes to own slaves himself, Jones reaches deeper into the past to challenge one of the fundamental myths of American history: the myth that slavery was, first and foremost, an aspect of racism. 

With every book, Jones casts his net wider; with every book, his ambition grows. And with every book, he seems to become stranger and more confused. In All Aunt Hagar’s Children, his most recent collection, the narrative voice is clumsy and anxious, constantly interrupting itself to clarify minute chronological details or insert irrelevant background information. Jones seems overwhelmed by a need to lay it all out, to make everything plain, and the result is a baffling welter of detail in which it’s often difficult to locate the story. But despite the artistic superiority of Lost in the City and The Known World, it is this third book that haunts me. What makes it a failure is not some loss of nerve or paucity of sentiment, but something more—and for all its miscues (or maybe because of them), it seems to speak more urgently than the other books to the real predicament of black America.

* * *

Lost in the City, Jones’s first book, was published to great acclaim in 1992 and has just been reissued in a twentieth anniversary edition. It is an elegant collection set in Washington between the 1960s and the early ’90s. Like the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners, to which it owes a great deal, these stories are limited in scope: none of those set in the ’60s are overtly concerned with the civil rights movement, for instance. The narrator of “The Store” hires a woman named Gloria 5X, but he mentions it only in passing: “Before she lost her slave name, the world…had called her Puddin. And that is what I learned to call her.” Likewise, “The First Day” is the story of an illiterate mother registering her daughter for school. There is no mention of Little Rock or Brown v. Board of Education, but her bewilderment and anxiety make it perfectly clear that she knows what’s at stake. She has brought not only her daughter’s birth certificate and immunization records, but “a doctor’s letter concerning [her daughter’s] bout with chicken pox, rent receipts…a letter about [their] public assistance payments, even her marriage license.”

It’s only in the interplay between these stories that the political and historical circumstances become unmistakable. “The First Day” ends with a child in school, but the next story begins with a teenager playing hooky. In the title story, Lydia, a corporate lawyer with a cocaine habit, has offered to buy her mother a house in a better neighborhood, but her mother refuses because she doesn’t feel she can live among so many white people. In the next story, Santiago Moses, himself a drug dealer, buys his own mother the house of her “poor-women dreams.” She lives there with Rickey Madison, Santiago’s driver, who gets drunk in bed and tells her about the money that her son makes—so much money that it must be “some kinda sin just to have it at one time in a place that wasn’t a bank.” On their own, these stories seem to describe very different situations, but side by side they speak in chorus. Upward mobility is possible for these women only if they accept uncomfortable and sometimes dreadful moral concessions.

Like these two mothers, most of the characters in Lost in the City are troubled by a kind of uneasiness, but often this feeling has nothing to do with their present economic circumstances: it is an existential unease that derives ultimately from slavery. Lost in the City is reserved in its treatment of the subject, and slavery is present for these characters the same way it is for the reader—as an evil miasma. Only occasionally does Jones make it plain, as when the narrator of “The Store” casually says that his mother “would have sold [him] back into slavery for a good cup of coffee.” Or again, in the title story, the reader is told that Lydia will soon “pass a point in her life where she would have earned more than all her ancestors put together, all of them, all the way back to Eve.” Whatever the extent of their successes (or failures), these characters know that they are only a few generations removed from slavery. They live with the fear that everything they’ve worked for might suddenly be taken from them.

* * *

In The Known World, which is set in a fictional Virginia county in the 1840s, Jones makes this grim legacy his principal subject. The novel takes place on a slave plantation owned and operated by the widow of a black man named Henry Townsend, himself a former slave, and it describes not only the familiar horrors of plantation life, but the deeper contradictions and ambiguities of slave society.

The correspondence with Jones’s stories is clear. Upwardly mobile characters in Lost in the City and later in All Aunt Hagar’s Children are keen to speak “white man’s English” and carefully pronounce the g’s at the ends of their “-ing” words. In The Known World, free black children are taught to pronounce their g’s in order to distinguish themselves from slave children. The fear of white policemen that is so pervasive in Jones’s stories also has its roots here, a world in which free blacks are terrified of the patrollers responsible for catching runaways. If policemen, ostensibly neutral, are later perceived to represent white authority and white interests, their precursors in The Known World are quite literally paid to do violence to black slaves.

In case there’s any doubt about these connections, the narrator frequently jumps forward in time to offer some glimpse of the future. Sometimes that future falls within the novel’s compass, but often it’s a distant one: “When the War between the States came, the number of slave-owning blacks in Manchester would be down to five.” After several pages, time suddenly shifts: “Years later, after Rita disappeared…”; in “Philadelphia years later, as she paid for all those posters with Minerva’s picture on them….” In the first place, these flash-forwards reframe the story so that the emphasis is not on what will happen—in a general way, we already know that—but on how it will come to pass and what it will mean for these characters. Here, the Civil War is not an impermeable barrier or a grand theatrical melodrama; it is only one part of the backdrop against which the urgent drama of daily life is played out.

But even though The Known World addresses itself to the future, it has a great deal to say about the more distant past. At the heart of the story is Henry Townsend, who lives in slavery until his father—the upright and capable Augustus, who has already purchased his own freedom and the freedom of his wife—earns enough to buy him and set him free. Henry has social ambitions, and here, as in Lost in the City, upward mobility demands a moral sacrifice: to be a gentleman, he must buy slaves. His parents are outraged—“You could not have hurt me more if you had cut off my arms and my legs,” Augustus says—but the other characters accept Henry’s choice as a matter of course. White patrollers defend his interests, white slave owners tolerate him, and his own slaves are concerned only that he is the master. The remarkable thing about him is that he is unremarkable. To a reader who grows up with the standard elementary school narrative of American history—the story of an oppressed black minority struggling to gain its freedom in a society created by a slave-holding white majority—the fact of Henry Townsend is astonishing and troubling.

Why doesn’t Townsend constitute an unacceptable challenge to the foundational ideas of the slave society? It may be tempting to imagine that he is the beneficiary of some misbegotten political reform—an attempt to make slavery more modern, perhaps, by stripping it of its racial character—but in that case one would expect to hear some grumbling from the novel’s white characters. In fact, Henry is a relic of the deep past. He exists—that is to say, his existence is possible—because, though the American colonies were built by black slaves, they were not founded on the idea of a black underclass. That idea evolved gradually and spontaneously, for many reasons and over a period of many years, and it evolved in response to a need that was economic. The New World plantations needed workers, and it was easier to kidnap and coerce them than it was to convince people to undertake such a dangerous enterprise of their own free will. In the beginning, coerced laborers were both black and white, but because political turmoil in West Africa made black slaves more readily available, and because people from West and Central Africa were likely to have some resistance to the tropical diseases that made plantation life so terrifying, landowners came to favor black slaves over indentured or kidnapped European laborers. Race and racism were therefore not the foundation of the New World plantation economy, but one of its first products. This is the reason that racial slavery could accommodate a contradiction as radical as Henry Townsend. The concept of race served the purposes of wealth; Henry’s money would always have been more important than his skin tone.

In Gainesville, Florida, where I live, one often sees Confederate flag tattoos that bear the legend “Heritage Not Hate.” The idea, at least on the face of it, is ludicrous. There is no South, no sweet tea or pecan pie, without slavery. But that isn’t what the tattoo is about. It means, approximately, “Just because I’m proud of where I come from doesn’t mean I’m a racist.” And the sentiment may even be sincere, but The Known World makes it very clear that racism is only one feature of a larger and more enduring evil. In Jones’s vision, the antebellum South is not some distant and vanished agrarian society but a part of the modern world, a place where capitalism was allowed to reach its most complete and most brutal expression. Many of the cultural, political and economic institutions that we claim to value, that we may celebrate as part of our “heritage,” are themselves founded on the ethos of exploitation that made slavery possible. One of the dreadful ironies of Reconstruction is that the Fourteenth Amendment, which was intended to give full legal rights to freed slaves, later became one of the legal justifications for the doctrine of corporate personhood. Even though the Reconstruction amendments were in one sense a form of economic regulation—they made it illegal to buy and sell people, a transaction that should be perfectly legal in a truly “free” market—the Fourteenth Amendment also inaugurated an era in which multinational corporations exercise unimaginable power. Emancipation therefore did nothing to change the underlying reality. If many of the old plantations fell apart in the United States, it’s hardly a secret that sweatshops and big plantations still flourish abroad under the banner of neoliberal economics.

This is a problem for Jones the fiction writer, because if it’s true—if race and racism were creations of the plantation economy, and if that economy has persisted in various forms and in various places—then the correspondence between Lost in the City and The Known World may not be as straightforward as it appears. It’s one thing to illustrate the connection between the patrollers in the novel and the policemen in the stories, but what is the causal relationship? We have our gut reaction: all of this seems very bad! There’s more to a tattoo than meets the eye! And that’s important—but what else is there to say?

* * *

Fiction can illustrate such a connection without having to articulate its deeper meaning, which is important because it’s not always possible to articulate the deeper meaning. For me, Lost in the City is complete and persuasive and powerful. But Jones himself seems to have been transformed by the experience of writing The Known World, and though he returns, in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, to contemporary Washington, he is no longer able to approach that material in the same way. These stories are wider in scope, messier, with more characters, more subplots, more backstory. He seems intent on something new, and the results are mixed at best. The title story is a lamentable stab at hard-boiled detective fiction. “The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River” and “A Poor Guatemalan Dreams of a Downtown in Peru” look like magical realism. “Bad Neighbors” is an imitation of John Cheever (it begins: “Even before the fracas with Terence Stagg, people all along both sides of the 1400 block of 8th Street, N.W., could see the Benningtons for what they really were”). Jones must intend some kind of irony—Cheever is the great poet of the complacent white middle class, and Jones is often writing about black people who struggle all their lives to become middle class—but it doesn’t come off.

This formal uncertainty is mirrored in the prose, which at times seems maddened by the need to explain itself. Here is the beginning of a paragraph from the second page of “Root Worker”:

“Mr. Morton,” Maddie said not a month after becoming companion to Alberta, “can I speak some words to you?” The murder of her best friend by Maddie’s brother had awakened Maddie to the fact that she had been rather blind to the pain of others, even those close to her. “Just a few words, Mr. Morton,” Maddie said. She spoke not long after lunch one day in late May, a rare mild day in a month that had seen more violently hot weather than even Washington was used to.

What’s happening here? This scene-setting, this fumbling with time, threatens constantly to give way to brisker and brighter prose, but it never does. An inconsequential four-line exchange takes several pages. The story is derailed by digression and qualification.

It seems clear that Jones intends some kind of synthesis of The Known World and Lost in the City, but it’s not clear how the novel’s wider historical perspective ought to inflect these stories about contemporary life. “Root Worker” does seem to grope toward some kind of balance between past and present: a doctor accompanies her parents on a visit to a traditional healer in North Carolina, where her mother is cured of a psychological ailment that modern medicine has been powerless to address. The past is still alive, maybe, and still potent? A similar impulse is at work in “The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River,” which begins: “Some fourteen years after her grandmother walked out into the Atlantic Ocean on her way to heaven, Laverne Shepherd went into the Safeway on Good Hope Road, S.E., and for the first time came face-to-face with the Devil.” The traditions of an older world share space with the Safeway—and not just any Safeway, but the one on Good Hope Road. The Devil is real and alive and present, but at the same time he’s an ancestral memory. Laverne’s grandmother has spent some time with him on “a red country road in Georgia.”

This collection abounds with grandmothers who have seen “only the morning, afternoon, and evening of a cotton field” and men who struggle to make “enough of a living raising crops so that they could put more and more distance between themselves and the legacy of slavery”—but the more explicit these links to the past become, the more difficult it is to say what they’re supposed to mean. “Root Worker” is confusing not because it’s too elliptical, but because it’s too specific with respect to time and place, too hopeful that truth lies in the obsessive retailing of facts. That specificity does not illuminate any intangible truths, whatever those truths might be; it only highlights their intangibility.

In a certain way, Jones is defeated by the quality that is also most admirable in his work: his belief that it’s possible to talk about the presence of the past in a straightforward way, without humor or irony or paradox. His overbearing narrators express themselves with a certainty that suggests the language is fully under their control, but American English is haunted by the memory of what it once had to describe. The importance of Barack Obama’s election can never be overstated, for instance, but its importance is partly rhetorical: Obama’s mother was white, so when we say that Obama himself is black, we articulate a cultural rather than a physical reality. Even in celebrating the election of a black president, we affirm the old distinctions, the one-drop rule, the foundation of the slave system.

This is the kind of problem Jones has to deal with in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, and that’s also why the collection is important: it is a manifestation of the confusion we all feel when we try to talk about these things. It is not true that Caesar Matthews, in “Old Boys, Old Girls,” turns to crime because American society has given him no other option. And yet it’s also true that he turns to crime because American society has given him no other option. Jones cannot make sense of this paradox. His stately prose doesn’t allow him the flexibility to grapple with something that obviously is and obviously isn’t what it seems to be.

In the end, he needs a voice, not an omniscient narrator—a voice that never pretends to anything but deep subjectivity; a voice that speaks in a comfortable vernacular, leaves everything out and never worries about its own hypocrisy. Flannery O’Connor’s characters don’t know anything, and they don’t care; James Baldwin is the angriest writer in American literature. Both of these writers get to the heart of things: race in America is not a matter of cool third-person narration but of tormented individual experience. If it’s an experience we all have in common, it’s still one that we experience differently and to which we react differently. We get our tattoos, we write our essays, we tear our hair out, we buy a gun. That is the truth of it, and it’s awful, and a responsible narrator—a truly omniscient narrator—ought to say so.

But I think Jones knows that. In his minute attention to his own characters, in the complexity of their motives and apprehensions, he judges correctly that no political or cultural institution is as complex as the human heart. The best thing about All Aunt Hagar’s Children are the unaccountable characters who will not conform to type, people like the “aging Jesuit” who discovers “too late in his life that while God walked with him, he did not enjoy walking with God.” Jones’s obvious love for these people is worth everything. That’s the hard part, after all. That’s where we can find hope. So in the end, he’s already saying the thing he needs to say—the grim, honest, equivocal, impossible truth. Now all he needs to do is step aside and let his characters say it for themselves.

Also in this issue, Joanna Scott surveys the fiction of William Faulkner.