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.”