Edward P. Jones's first book, composed of 14 stories set mostly in poor and working-class Washington, D.C., neighborhoods, fits comfortably on a shelf with other fine collections devoted to urban portraiture, such as Stuart Dybek's Childhood and Other Neighborhoods or Gwendolyn Brooks's A Street in Bronzeville. But its best analogue may very well be "Inner City Blues," a classic composition made famous by Jones's fellow Washingtonian Marvin Gaye. Both are masterful cityscapes propelled by rhythmic language and drama aplenty, potent snapshots of hunger, frustration and vague uneasiness simmering to a boil. Their streetcorner tableaux evoke a fragility that almost seems quaint now, taking place before the ravaging arrival of crack and AIDS. Still, they portray a world under siege, with its timeless threats of war and gentrification -- and characters seemingly trapped in an hourglass slowly filling up with sand. In "The Store," set in 1962, Jones's 22-year-old narrator feels "as if the world I knew and depended on was now coming apart."
Where Gaye used an irresistible bass hook and an unearthly falsetto, Jones's tone is more akin to a gospel hum than a throaty wail, an oddly enchanting blend of Thomas Dorsey's "I'm A Pilgrim (I'm A Stranger)," Brill Building romance and honeyed doo-wop. Imagine for instance a quartet of young girls in a broken-down Hudson, cruising to Anacostia while crooning "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" And whereas Gaye's ghetto Everyman frequently complained, "it makes me wanna holler/ throw up both my hands," Jones's Washingtonians keep moving resolutely forward, trudging to work, wandering in taxis, staggering through booze-induced delirium -- awkwardly sure, but forward nonetheless.
Other times, though, they just get lost. Some folks simply end up in unfamiliar places, like the girls in "The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed." Cassandra, the story's headstrong protagonist, agrees to drive her friends through a strange community. "If we get lost," she warns, "it ain't my damn fault." Others scoff at the possibility of going astray. "I know the way that Washington, D.C. is set up," asserts an elderly grandfather in "A New Man." "I came there once maybe twice. How could I get lost." He wants to find his 15-year-old granddaughter, who, it seems, has gotten lost on purpose.
The same is true of Lydia Walsh, a successful but unhappy lawyer at the center of the title story. When the taxi she's ordered arrives at her posh apartment, she instructs the driver to "Just get me lost in the city." In "The Sunday Following Mother's Day," a wayward father sets out to visit his daughter but never gets there. He has violated a maximum he's heard all his life: "Never get lost in white folks' neighborhood. The first law a the land." Jones is a wonderfully subtle writer who doesn't seem to revel in florid effusions of rhetoric. He just quietly lays out his words and images, confident in their gradual accumulation of power. His economy of language works effectively in the shortest stories and the longest, such as "The Store." Its earnest, twentysomething narrator describes his girlfriend's father as a man who "talked as if every morning when he got up, he memorized an awfully big word from the dictionary and forced himself to use that word in his conversations throughout the day, whether the word actually fit what he was saying or not." As for the girlfriend, she was one of those women "who give out smiles like each time they do it takes them a mile farther from heaven. And after they speak you're a year older and a foot shorter." The storekeeper goes on to speak of "making room in my soul for more than one neighborhood." Make room in your soul for Edward P. Jones's powerfully drawn strugglers and strivers. Theirs is a world worth getting lost in.
I'm intrigued by a number of themes that float through these stories, such as the ways in which Jones returns to the power of literacy, and the various ways he uses foreshadowing to hint of tragedies to come. Share your insights with me during an online discussion of Lost in the City on Tuesday, Dec. 21, at 3 p.m.