Shining City, Tarnished Dreams

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, August 27, 2006



By Edward P. Jones

Amistad. 399 pp. $25.95

Now there can be no doubt about it: Edward P. Jones belongs in the first rank of American letters. With the publication of All Aunt Hagar's Children, his third book and second collection of short stories, Jones has established himself as one of the most important writers of his own generation -- he is 55 years old -- and of the present day. Not merely that, but he is one of the few contemporary American writers of literary fiction who is more interested in the world around him than he is in himself, with the happy result that he has much to tell us about ourselves and how we live now.

Fourteen years ago, Jones published a collection of short stories called Lost in the City. I almost certainly wouldn't have reviewed the book had not the stories been set in Washington, since Jones was almost completely unknown and -- to be perfectly frank -- story collections are not the easiest books to review. It interested me, though, that the stories took place in parts of the District -- Northeast, Southeast, Anacostia -- that rarely figure in fiction about Washington and that virtually all of their characters were African American, as is Jones himself.

Lost in the City turned out to be one of those exceptionally rare books -- in my 40-year reviewing career, there have been perhaps a dozen -- that come from nowhere to leave one astonished and delighted. It also left me, as well as many readers with whom I've corresponded or spoken, eager for Jones's next book, but that was a long time coming. His first novel, The Known World , did not appear until 2003, but it was immediately recognized as an extraordinary piece of work, a historical novel set in the antebellum South about a black man who owned slaves. It won a number of literary awards, most significantly the Pulitzer Prize, and it doubtless is what led the MacArthur Foundation to give him one of its prestigious and remunerative fellowships.

It seems to have liberated him as well, for after its publication he began writing short stories in a great rush of productivity. Some were published in the New Yorker, to which fiction no longer is as central as it once was but which still reaches a large and disproportionately influential readership. As these and other stories appeared, it became clear that Jones was gradually expanding the scope of his fiction and playing with means of constructing it. As now collected in All Aunt Hagar's Children , these 14 stories are again "about" Washington in one way or another, but they are set over a broader period of time than those in Lost in the City, and they are at moments less realistic, more fanciful, weaving past, present and future into a tapestry -- "Tapestry" being, I suspect by no means coincidentally, the title of the last of these stories.

Jones takes his book's title and inspiration from the Book of Genesis and the blues of W.C. Handy. The story of Abraham, in Genesis, revolves around the inability of his wife, Sarah, to bear children. He turns to the slave Hagar, who becomes pregnant and bears him a son, Ishmael. God then permits Sarah to bear a son, Isaac, but Sarah is angered when she sees the boys together and demands that Abraham "cast out this slave woman with her son." This he does, but he is distressed, so God tells him: "As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring." The nation that ensued, many people believe, is Africa itself, hence blacks are "all Aunt Hagar's children."

The story of Hagar has long been told in black churches and is the stuff of music as well. In the early 1920s, W.C. Handy wrote "Aunt Hagar's Blues," which includes the lines: "Just hear Aunt Hagar's chilun harmonizin' to that old mournful tune!/ It's like choir from on high broke loose!/ If the devil brought it, the good Lord sent it right down to me,/ Let the congregation join while I sing those lovin' Aunt Hagar's Blues!" The song has been recorded many times, perhaps most notably by Louis Armstrong on his album devoted to Handy's music. It's easy to imagine that Jones listened to that performance more than once as he wrote these superb stories.

Aunt Hagar is present here both as the symbolic mother of all African Americans and as the embodiment of black womanhood. In the title story, a young black man is murdered, and a friend of his mother says: "One more colored boy outa their hair. It's a shame before God, the way they do all Aunt Hagar's children." As it turns out, the killer is not white, but the indifference of the police (both white and black) to the case certainly underscores the low value placed on black lives in many precincts of this city and most other places, where "the world the white people had made for themselves" is the only one that counts.

But Jones doesn't write protest fiction or racially charged fiction. What mainly interests him is how ordinary people -- ordinary people who happen to be black -- struggle against the many ways in which "the world beyond . . . could hurt them." Many of them are in situations comparable to that of the family in "Resurrecting Methuselah": "Her father took a second job in the evenings, and the family, which included a younger brother, stayed near the bottom of the middle class, a few paychecks from the lower class in which the parents had been raised and which they had thought they would not have to see again." They are mostly moving upward, but slowly and uncertainly, always mindful of how short a distance separates them from where they don't want to be.

Most of them are still intimately connected to the rural, small-town South from which they or their forebears came to Washington, but they live very different lives. In "Tapestry," the young woman and her new husband ride in a crowded train car: "They shared food, they shared stories about home, about Southern places that would be the foundation of their lives in the North. None of them could know that the cohesion born and nurtured in the South would be but memory in less than two generations." In the South, they imagine Washington as Shangri-La, a place "where, South Carolina old folks said, people threw away their dishes after every meal because it was cheaper to buy new ones." The sleeping-car porter in "Tapestry" says:

"They treat colored people like kings and queens in Washington, cause thas where the president lives. Would they treat colored people anything but good in a city where the president hangs his hat and pets his dog and snores beside Mrs. President every night? Now would they? . . . No. Course not. They wouldn't do such a thing to us."

But of course they do. Some of the trouble comes from without, some from within: "Two weeks ago a woman on New Jersey Avenue returning home from work had been robbed and hit twice in the head with a gun, the worst crime many had heard about in some time. Roxanne was realizing that Washington was getting less and less safe for people like her. The good and the decent. Men with little in their pockets had done the city in." A preacher looks out on his congregation: "It might have been all the grandparents he saw before him, all the people who had struggled into old age only to find themselves parents once again. . . . All of them the kind of people the preacher had built his rock on. The world was turned upside down when the mature ones were forced to do what the younger ones should be doing."

One is far more aware of this altered and diminished Washington in these stories than in the stories of 14 years ago in Lost in the City . From the vantage point of a farm in North Carolina or Mississippi a couple of generations ago, Washington may have looked like Gold Mountain, but now it looks quite different: still offering hope and happiness, but riskier, tougher, crueler.

Yet this, as Jones sees it, is an obstacle, not a dead end. These people are in it for the long run. They persevere. One of them says: "We want, we rage, we desire, we fail, we succeed. We stand in that long, long line." Another says: "The heart can be cruel, the heart can be wicked, the heart can give joy . . . but it is always an instrument we can never understand." Or, as that same character thought when she was nearly seven decades younger: "Her heart was breaking, but that was in the nature of hearts, she told herself. . . . It was also in their nature to heal for however long it took, six months, a year, two years."

None of these people has it easy. Some of them fail, some suffer heavy losses, some die in violent or untimely ways. Some, too, are granted a measure of absolution and grace, such as a grandfather and grandson who somehow reach across a great distance and touch each other. Jones is an honest writer but also a kind one. He loves the people whom he brings to life, including those who clearly vex or infuriate him. The stories of All Aunt Hagar's Children , like all his previous work, radiate decency, humanity and an abiding faith in human possibility. ยท

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