Review of Lost
In The City, by Edward P. Jones
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/26/05
Synchronicity is, more or less, a random event that seems to have more than a random meaning. Such it was when I read Edward P. Jones’ short story collection Lost In The City directly after having read Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians. The reason was that Alexie’s book showed off everything that’s wrong with PC Elitist art and literature, coming from a person in an ethnic minority, while Jones’ book- a 1992 National Book Award finalist, reprinted after the great success of his 2003 NBA and Pulitzer prize winning novel The Known World- showed off almost everything that minority writers can do to ‘fight the stereotype’, as Alexie preaches, but does not practice. Both men’s books deal with specific peoples in specific locals- Alexie’s with Spokane Indians in Washington state, while Jones’ with blacks in Washington, D.C. Jones, unlike Alexie, has quality writing in all fourteen of his stories, because his characters are fully realized, and nor caricatures nor stereotypes, and the situations that they have to deal with flow naturally out of predicaments of their proscribed lives. Are there some stereotypically ‘black’ characters? A few, but they are minor characters, and in the background of the tales, as are most walking stereotypes you or I know. And there are seeming stereotypes- such as young hoodlums and drug dealers, that are revealed to have nuances and depths. Alexie does not undermine and nuance his characters in any way in his worst stories, while his best tale- one on the life cycle of a marriage between Indians, is his best tale precisely for the fact that its focus is on the marriage, not that it is an ‘Indian marriage’. Race and bigotry and pain are the reason for many Alexie tales, and they quickly devolve into screeds. Jones is a much more mature writer, and his worst tales, which are merely solid stories, are so not because of predictability, screeding, nor stereotyping, but simply because they go on too long, or the conversations do not serve the tale well. Those are minor ills, though, as this is a book that well should be praised. In comparison, especially, to the pap that’s published nowadays, it’s a great book.
The first tale, The Girl Who Raised Pigeons, is a flat-out great story- rich evocative, filled with poetry, and a terrific end- about Betsy Ann Morgan, being raised by her widowered father, finding inspiration in the birds she cares for on her rooftop pigeon coop. Read it, then read what is published online or in ‘name’ magazines, and the difference is clear. The First Day is a brief tone poem on a child’s first day in school, and its end is haunting. Just a wonderful evocation of a moment that almost every reader can relate to. The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed is another strong story- a slice of life about the effect of a girl’s senseless death on her good friend, whose end rocks you, even though you know what’s coming. Young Lions is the first weak story, but that’s relative to the first three tales. It’s about young criminals, has not much insight, and a bit of a melodramatic end. Still, it’s far better than any online pap you’ll find about hip badasses. The Store is the best tale in the book, and certainly one of the greatest published short stories of the last twenty or so years. It is lush in detail, and insight, into a bygone era, as it follows the several year career of an irresponsible young man who gradually learns responsibility, the worth of things and people, and a sense of place in the cosmos. Its end is touching, but it’s simply a masterwork of writing. An Orange Line Train To Ballston is another moment-piece, ala The First Day, although not quite as poignant- but still larded with skill and insight. The Sunday Following Mother’s Day is a good story, about the aftermath of a domestic murder of a woman by her husband, whose only weak spot is its end- but overall, very strong.
The titular tale, Lost In The City, is another moment-piece following a drug-addled discombobulated woman, who’s a rich buppy lawyer, rushing to a hospital to see her mother, who has just died. The lay out of the inner workings of the bereaved woman’s mind is an excellent approach, and Jones pulls it off magnificently. His Mother’s House is a solid tale that’s a bit too long, and- like Young Lions- follows young hoodlums and violence. It is a relatively weak tale, and I suspect that Jones, in both stories, had no firsthand experience, or simply could not properly empathize. These are minor quibbles, and even these weakest tales are still several notches above what is generally published. A Butterfly On F Street is another brief moment-piece, about the awkward meeting of a widow, and the woman her husband left her for, on a street corner. Its poetry and symbolism are resonant. A terrific tale. Gospel is a slice of life about the aftermath of the neighborhood church’s burning down, and its effects on the church’s gospel singers. It is too long, but has nice moments. It is, again, a weak tale only relative to the other gems within, as slices of life stories really need to be short, as mood pieces, lest they just start droning on about insignificant things. Minutia can quickly become trivia. A New Man follows the changes wrought by the unexpected disappearance of a lonely couple’s only child- their fifteen year old daughter. It is haunting, and its end brings tears- but it is no mere tearjerker- these babies are heartfelt! A Dark Night is a light and slight tale, with a great end, whose premise can be filled in by my merely telling you it is night, and stormy. This is frivolous, but fun. The final tale in the book is Marie- another absolute home run of greatness. It follows an elderly woman who worries that her Social Security checks are in jeopardy, especially after she slaps a rude and demeaning receptionist at the Social Security office. She is then visited by a Howard University college kid who wants to tape her life story for a folklore project. The end of the tale, which follows Marie listening to her recorded voice is powerful, in both psychological and dramatic ways, and its end perfectly in tune with the character we see sketched before us. It is a terrific end to a great book.
Of the fourteen stories I reckon at least nine are excellent to great, and the others solid to good. That’s a phenomenal ratio in this watered down age. It’s a great book, and has most truck with James Joyce’s Dubliners, rather than Alexie’s stereotypes, or the exaggerated grotesques of a Sherwood Anderson or Flannery O’Connor, because the characters are people first, rather than blacks or Washingtonians, just as Joyce’s characters are people first, before they are Irishmen and Dubliners. That said, Jones’ characters do engage in some stereotypical behavior, as do Joyce’s, but it is limited, and certainly not the norm, and the characters who do descend to such depths usually pay for their shallowness. Also, like Dubliners, there is cross-pollination between stories, as main characters in one tale sometimes cameo in later tales, as the stories are over several decades- a noticeable difference from Dubliners, which is concentrated over a one or two year period.
Why is it so difficult to find great writers and stories? Why does not the publishing industry find and promote more Edward P. Joneses? Well, first off, there are not that many, but, these stories may not be ‘moneymakers’ because they do not offer pat solutions, nor are the characters caricatures, and they do not skim along the mere surfaces of things. It also takes an effort for readers to fully appreciate the multi-hued, and deeply textured tales and portraits Jones relates, and most people suffer from video game or MTV languor. Yet, is there, or has there ever been, a better virtual reality machine than a great piece of writing? A great poem puts you in a moment, and a great story can arc you through events that you can feel, almost as if experiencing them for yourself.
I loathe the cheapening of thought and conversation and striving for insight. That is why I love this book, and the relative handful of other works like it that are out there. Instead of the shot at a quick, cheap, moneymaker, publishers should seek quality, and promote it, to develop careers, rather than get one hit wonders, whose one hit was dependent upon things other than the writing quality- which is usually sorely lacking. Accept lesser profits in the short term, but greater in the long run, while also contributing to literature. It then forces an upward spiral of writing, where people can look to an Edward Jones, or William Kennedy, or Charles Johnson, and say, ‘I want to write like them, because they’re good, and I want to contribute to my culture,’, rather than this several decades long downward spiral where bad writers see a Mary Gaitskill or Yann Martell or Stephen Elliott or (fill in the Oprah-type writer) being published, and say, ‘I want to write like them, because it’s easy, and I can write better than that crap, and I want to be famous.’
It is not enough to merely say why a writer is good, but show it, praise
it, and honor it as among the best an individual can do, and the highest that
human beings can achieve. On that note I will close with the terrific end of The
Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed:
She made a pallet for her daughter beside the bed and turned out the
light when she left the room. Occasionally, Cassandra would drift into what
Anita thought was sleep. All the while Cassandra gritted her teeth. Sometime,
way late in the night, Cassandra spoke out, and at first Anita thought she was
talking in her sleep: She asked Anita to sing that song she sung in the car on
the way home. Anita sang; long after her parents had gone to bed, long after she
stopped wondering if Cassandra was listening, Anita sang. She sang on into the
night for herself alone, her voice pushing back everything she did not yet
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 6/05 Hackwriters website.]
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