Review Of Edward P.
Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/13/08
Reading the latest book of short stories put out by Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, was a profound disappointment because, unlike bad writers like Dave Eggers, T.C. Boyle, David Foster Wallace, newcomers like Donald Ray Pollock, or literary leeches like Thomas Steinbeck, Jones actually has (or had) writing talent. His 1991 book of short stories, Lost In The City, actually was a great piece of literature, with an astounding nine of its fourteen stories reaching greatness (utterly unheard of for published manuscripts). However, The Known World, his 2003 novel that actually won him the Pulitzer, was merely a mediocrity- very overwritten and dull. In reading it I wondered if this was a fluke, or was the earlier book a fluke? The answer, if reading this collection is a guide, is that the first book was the fluke. Not a single one of this book’s fourteen tales broaches greatness, even though a few tales here contain some crossover characters from the first book of short stories. In fact, only one story even comes near to being a solid to good tale. The rest are excruciatingly long tales where nothing really happens, and not in the good sense, where a character does nothing physically, but the reader experiences the life of the mind of a witty or introspective character at a crucial point in their plight. No, nothing happens in these tales because nothing really happens. The plots are leaden, dull, the characters trite and uninteresting, and the endings almost all verge on, or drench themselves in, cliché. And whereas Lost In The City was taut and poetic, and even The Known World had passages that stuck in the mind, the tales in this latest collection smother a reader, turn them off from the first or second paragraph, and make the reading a chore. If there are 5 or 6 memorable sentences in the book’s 399 pages I’d be shocked, almost as shocked as I am at the a) incredible drying up of Jones’ talent or b) the incredible power that getting fat and sassy with recognition can do to some people, if not out and out ‘selling out.’ By contrast, Lost In The City came in at a crisp 243 pages, a figure which only highlights the bloat this book, and his lauded novel, suffer from. Jones simply trips up on his own labyrinthine effusiveness and fondness for filler.
Of course, Jones’ downward trajectory in his three books is wholly unremarked upon in the critical reception that his work gets, especially this last book. In fact, the reviews all seem to be cribbed from each other. Doubt me? Let me quote the summaries of some major and minor reviews- I won’t give the names of the reviewers nor their publications, but just Google them and the crib notes are obvious:
Readers who enjoyed The Known World will relish these varied gems of Jones’ talent for storytelling.
With the legacy of slavery just a stone’s throw away and the future uncertain, Jones's cornucopia of characters will haunt readers for years to come.
Avid readers of Edward P. Jones will definitely want to add this collection to their libraries and will pick their favorites within All Aunt Hagar’s Children.
All Aunt Hagar’s Children will add to Jones's reputation as a
That, if for no other reason, is why we will read Edward P. Jones’s work: for that heartbreaking.
Jones is such an incredibly gifted writer, his prose is succinct, true, impeccably crafted. Reading his work is not only a pleasure but a privilege as well.
Edward P. Jones has done it again with this sure-to-be classic.
He is compassionate and has written stories that ache with tragedy and wistfulness. His characters are largely still lost, yet the collection feels hopeful. They make you feel less alone, what all good fiction should do.
The stories of All Aunt Hagar's Children, like all his previous work, radiate decency, humanity and an abiding faith in human possibility.
Note the plethora of generic huzzahs and emotional buzzwords. This shows that Jones is now officially part of the establishment for he gets his ass kissed despite manifestly subpar work. When a book, or any work of art, fails, the critic who is trying to avoid doing his job is sure to fall back on one of these two crutches- genericism or emotionalism. I focus on this because there is not much in the book to focus on; the exact same reason the reviews all fall back on emotionalism and banalities.
Speaking of which, that master of banalities, Dave Eggers, wrote a review of the book last year in the New York Times. Let me quote some of the unwitting irony, as well as the utter predictability and emotional crutching:
Put side by side, “Lost in the City” and “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” are extraordinary works of empathy and imagination. Though the first collection might be more consistent- it was short-listed for a National Book Award, but it is still under-read- this one is equally necessary for its occasional missteps. The title story, told from the point of view of a young man charged with solving a murder, finds Jones dabbling in noir, of all things, and the result is uneven. There is timidity in “A Poor Guatemalan Dreams of a Downtown in Peru,” a story about the prevalence of the supernatural in witnesses to great disasters. Yet the collection manages to stun on every page; there are too many breathtaking lines to count. If Jones has a weakness, it might be that he longs too potently for the middle past, the period after the northern migration of the children and grandchildren of “once-upon-a-time slaves” and before life in the cities made the tether of community more difficult to hold on to.
Note how Eggers dips into the generic praise even while faintly damning: we get ‘empathy and imagination,’ and are told the first book was better- which it is, although Eggers amends that damning by stating ‘the collection manages to stun on every page; there are too many breathtaking lines to count.’ Actually, not. By my count, 5 or 6, tops; if that. So, unless Eggers has lost some digits, he is into full hyperbole now. The criticisms are that one tale is ‘uneven,’ and the other has a ‘timidity.’ What the hell kind of a criticism is a ‘timidity’? The tale in question is bad, but because it is dull and far too long. Eggers’ other overall criticism is ‘that he longs too potently for the middle past, the period after the northern migration of the children and grandchildren of “once-upon-a-time slaves” and before life in the cities made the tether of community more difficult to hold on to.’ Please note that the criticism is not really a criticism, but guised as one, even though it really is just a description of Jones’ tendency and aims in the book. But, this paragraph is Eggers’ firewall against criticism of not a) actually reading the book and b) not having a clue as how to write a piece of criticism that does not give the pretense of negativity, here or there, or even equivocation.
But, enough with the fellatrics of bad critics, and on to the tales:
In The Blink Of God’s Eye follows a newly married couple on their journey to Washington D.C, in the early 20th Century. And here is the first sentence: ‘That 1901 winter when the wife and her husband were still new to Washington, there came to the wife like a scent carried on the wind some word that wolves roamed the streets and roads of the city after sundown.’ Again, note that this sentence opens the book and first tale, and it a) it lacks grammatically correct commas after ‘wife’ and ‘wind,’ for it is a dependent clause (the first of a near endless set of examples of anomic grammar employed by Jones), and b) two teeth-gnashing clichés- go ahead, reader, I trust your intellect enough to let you point them out. Here is how The Girl Who Raised Pigeons, the first tale from Lost In The City opens: ‘Her father would say years later that she had dreamed that part of it, that she had never gone out through the kitchen window at two or three in the morning to visit the birds.’ Granted, the asides of ‘years later’ could be set off by commas, but it’s not as egregious an error as the lack of commas in the first sentence’s clause, but look at the dream set up, and how it sets one up for some magical wonder, only to be rather pedestrian and real, yet something not expected in the grandiose openings of most tales that begin referencing a dream. Not a cliché in sight. And, unfortunately, the stark differences between the two opening sentences of the two books is symptomatic of the qualitative differences that widen as each book goes on.
The narrative finds the couple taking in a lost baby and having their lives swiftly descend into the sort of melodrama Jones eschewed in his earlier book. The whys and wherefores of the soap opera are not even compelling enough to detail, but the main male character ends the tale in this fashion: ‘His heart was pained, and it was pain enough to overwhelm a city of men.’ Now, contrast that to the end of the aforementioned first tale from Jones’ first book: ‘She did nothing, aside from following him, with her eyes, with her heart, as far as she could.’ Forget the two narrative tropes of the two stories. Trust me when I say that the earlier tale is far superior, and, if desirous of writing a 50,000 word essay I could demonstrate it convincingly. But, just compare these two sentences, with similar emotional situations, and even the use of the word ‘heart’ in both. The first sentence is banal and maudlin, as well as pitying toward the character. The sentence from the earlier work is uplifting and empowering. Instead of the triteness of a heart in pain, this sentence has a heart that is engaging the world in a synaesthetic feat of sight. Again, these two sentences plainly illustrate the qualitative differences of the two books, not to mention the second book’s increased bloat.
Then there’s Resurrecting Methuselah: this tale is bogged down with long and pointless dialogue that does not evoke characterization, but embodies stereotyping, and could condense several pages of it into literally a sentence or two summary. The tale follows a World War Two era couple separated by the war. She flies to Honolulu after learning he has cancer. Naturally, he’s an unfaithful husband. More melodrama ensues and the wife finds a store that sells old fashioned candies. She muses on what the future holds, but, because we are never given more than a soap opera plot, and are bored to tears by the excessive dialogue, this tale, rife with potential, falls flat, and ends like an odorless fart.
The tale, Old Boys, Old Girls, is a tale with even more potential than Resurrecting Methuselah, but fails even worse. Jones is totally out of his element in trying to write a tale mostly set in prison. The stereotypes and slang used are embarrassing, and Jones shows his suburban background in this story which reads like a five year old trying to write like Dostoevsky. The narrative follows a loser through prison and release,. and is filled with bravado more at home in a 1940s gangster film than a piece of supposedly realistic fiction- Jones manifestly has never stepped foot in a prison nor spoken with a con or ex-con. And if he has, then his tale is even worse for that knowledge. The tale also epitomizes Jones’ penchant for superfluous details, as he, in this and all the tales, never seems content to let a sentence stand where he can bloat it to a paragraph or two, and never let a good paragraph suffice without riffing on for two or three more pages.
The titular tale, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, is no better. Yes, it has a pretty good end, in comparison to the rest of the tales’ endings, but, like the rest of the tales, it lends no insight into the characters. Its unneeded descriptions and dialogue prevent any real slip into the characters’ shoes. The tale is about a Korean War vet who tries to unravel the death of an old family friend, and who also seeks his fortune in Alaska. These are two elements that a better writer- like the earlier Jones, could have made a compelling story out of, and in half this tale’s thirty pages. Alack, Jones seems to have lost that ability. One good point is that the killer turns out not to be the usual suspect- a white racist, but, other than that, these tales all seem to lose any narrative grip on the reader after the first five pages. The reader finds a slog and the reading becomes a chore. But, this only makes one speed up, to spin the wheels a bit faster, so the pain is dashed more quickly. Here’s an excruciating example of dialogue whose main essence could have been trimmed to three sentences. Unless a character’s showing unawareness of themselves, is soliloquizing, or in a deeper argument, blasé details like this are the proof that the writer is simply padding a tale, for nothing here reveals character, only plot, and plot which a few sentences could handle better:
“The problem you have is everybody in the world hated Ike,” Mary said. “Except his mother and his wife. They had to like him, had to love him.” When I was a sophomore at Dunbar and Mary was a senior, my brother told me I had nothing to lose by asking her out. “But after them two,” she said, “what you should do is close your eyes and put your finger on a list of names. Whichever one you pick, thas who did it.” I followed Mary from school one day in April. She was walking with Blondelle, who wouldn’t peel off so I could be alone with Mary and ask her out. In the end, I just went up to Mary and asked to speak to her private-like. When I was done, she went over to Blondelle and said, “Would you mind if he and I went out?” “I would indeed,” said Blondelle, who didn’t seem mad, didn’t sound upset. My brother kept a lot about the world from me. “If I had told you,” he said to me later, “it wouldn’t be the same as finding out yourself.”
“Miss Agatha’s in pain,” I said.
“We love Miss Aggie,” Blondelle said. “So we wish we could help, but we have nothin.” She wore glasses, and it struck me for the first time ever that she was pretty. How had I missed that? The April day that Mary told me no, she took my hand and held it long enough for me to know that there should be no hard feelings. Blondelle walked away. Mary kissed my mouth. There was a pleasant smell I came to associate with all colored women. If a man is to be rejected by a woman, he should be rejected by a woman like Mary, for then he might not be bitter about women. Blondelle was saying, “You know what a devil Ike could be. You could accuse anybody in Washington.” She sighed. “You have a high mountain to climb. And even if you do find the person, you gotta go back down that mountain and tell it to Miss Aggie.” She drank. “You been to where they killed him?”
“Where he was killed? He lived downstairs from Miss Aggie. The second-floor place.”
“I ain’t been there.”
“They didn’t teach you that in detective school?” Mary said. Blondelle killed the Coke. “They never taught you to visit the scene of the crime? You should use some a that mother wit you was born with.”
Blondelle said to Mary, “Oh, you know the private-dick people don’t like using mother wit. That would be too much like right.”
No such conversations ever infected the speech patterns in Lost In The City.
Jones tries to change tacks, a bit, in tales like A Poor Guatemalan Dreams of A Downtown In Peru and Root Worker, employing minor elements of ‘magical realism,’ but, as in most deployments of such, the tack fails. This is because of the bloat that infects the book. The former tale is thirty pages long and the latter forty. The former is a Telemundo-level Mexican soap opera, while the latter deals with rural blacks and beliefs in voodoo and other mystical hokum- a root worker being the local term for medicine man. Neither compels the reader in any way, despite the potential for each tale’s syllabus. Perhaps the best tale in the book, and one of the shortest, at twenty-four pages, is Rich Man. It follows a retired Pentagon employee and his wife. They are Senior Citizens who are at each others’ throats and unfaithful to each other. He more than she, but neither is portrayed as a particularly likeable person. Their bickering is amusing, but only in a superficial tv sitcom sort of way, like Sanford And Son or The Jeffersons. The wife then dies, and the husband goes catting. Stretching credulity to a breaking point, the seventysomething old man shacks up with a twentysomething baby mama. She uses and abuses him, and the tale ends up with his apartment in shambles. When everything has been lost, he looks around his apartment, now wrecked, and sees the young gal, hears he baby’s moans, and fumbles through the pieces of his prized record collection. This could be a devastating moment, save for the fact that there is no interior life nor light given to any of the characters. Like so many of the other characters in this book, they are de facto zombies. The husband is still as clueless as he was at the tale’s start.
The last two tales are Bad Neighbors and Tapestry. Neither is good and, like all the rest of the tales, both are far too long and overwritten. Bad Neighbors follows old school pals who have led different lives. One tries to go upwardly mobile, but fails, and is, naturally, the better person. The more successful neighbor is a worse person, but helped out by the ‘bad neighbor.’ Its symbolism and narrative trajectory is painfully obvious, in a Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood sort of way, yet without the charm the old pastor had. And, this could have been a good tale depicting black internal bigotry and redlining, etc., yet, like so many other tales it becomes formulaic melodrama, in a déclassé lesser Alice Adams sort of way. Tapestry follows another young couple, as did the book’s first tale, In The Blink Of God’s Eye. They, too, head to D.C. with dreams. Here, Jones indulges in another noisome aspect that inflicts much of the book- a sort of backhanded Samboism: ‘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.’ Imagine such a passage written by a white person. See what I mean? And if the unwitting racism is not enough, then there is the embarrassing symbolism of the title, and the fact that the main female character is a weaver of tapestries, at one point even declaring (cringe alert), ‘My tapestry ain’t a race, Mr. Carter.’ Jones so utterly distrusts his reading audience’s intellect that he has to have the character at once state what the tale’s theme is even as she benightedly denies it. This never happed in Lost In The City.
You may have noted that I have only briefly limned nine stories, but stated the book contained fourteen. That’s because five of the tales- Spanish In The Morning, Common Law, Adam Robinson Acquires Grandparents And A Little Sister, The Devil Swims Across The Anacostia River, and Blindsided, left no impression on my memory, due to banality, dullness, or an assortment of the ills previously described, and a few others not mentioned. Yes, I took notes of all the tales, and Post-ited them, but decided to not even waste the effort describing them since their titles produced no recall, just a few days after reading them. That alone says all one needs to know of their quality, or lack. And, contrary to what a hack like Dave Eggers writes, there is not a stunning moment in the book, nor ‘too many breathtaking lines to count.’ I dare you to find one of either. Lost In The City was brimming with them, even in the lesser stories. By contrast, All Aunt Hagar’s Children is virtually void of poesy, and larded with meaningless details and dialogue, not to mention meandering grammar. Its twin descents into turgidity and turbidity are alarming because they are the flowering of tendencies that The Known World first exhibited, and evidences a self-satisfaction and disregard for the reader, rather than a continual striving toward clear and effectively deep communication of ideas and characters. Whether Jones ‘lost it’ or is ‘coasting,’ the end result is the same, a work of fiction that is neither lean nor mean, and not only fails to match his earlier short fiction effort, but an overall failure as a stand-alone work; a book on par with the best of Joyce Carol Oates, but coming from someone who once touched greatness, it is a thick stew without flavor. Worse, All Aunt Hagar’s Children is a disgrace to its writer and his audience.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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