Edward P. Jones. All Aunt Hagar's Children.
Edward P. Jones has only written a handful of books: Lost in the City, a collection of short stories in 1992, The Known World, a novel, in 2003, and his latest collection, All Aunt Hagar's Children. Attention came quickly when the novel about slavery, told from the unusual perspective of the black slave owner, won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 2004. Except for the author's move into a new apartment, Jones's life remained pretty much the same. So, too, did his commitment to the short story, the literary genre in which he is clearly very comfortable. In All Aunt Hagar's Children, Jones explores with lyrical insight the limited lives of black men and women and their children. They are the uncommonly common folk, who barely eke out an existence, facing adversity after adversity, but who name their own freedom as they turn around disappointed lives in the most unsuspecting ways. Jones seems to have access to an endless archive of stories from his native Washington, DC, drawing primarily from those areas far beyond the pale of power, privilege, and prestige.
There are 14 stories in the new collection, all about the people we see but never really want to know, since their uncomfortable truths are likely to be mirrors of our own. But Jones is not in a hurry. He wants to make sure we "get it," that we develop compassion for these, his people, with lives not unlike his own. His is a moral quest, not a political one, since America's betrayal of the underclass is a higher truth that cannot be debated. Jones forces us to move slowly through the stories, savoring the words that are utterly readable, yet in a language so subtle that it disarms as it delights. We cannot leap to conclusions, for the ones that we are likely to draw--that the poor are not poor because they want to be, for example--easily dissolve in the actual telling. Our surrender to the story and to the storyteller is inevitable since we never know where Jones is going to take us or what particular lesson he wants to teach. He is extraordinarily adept at peering inside the hearts and souls of men and women, giving each their share of his sympathy and sensitivity. The long-suffering do not evoke pity, for they survive with a quiet, unspoken strength, always aware of the fragility of their own existence.
While Lost in the City is set in the later years of the twentieth century, All Aunt Hagar's Children is far more retrospective than its temporal setting would imply. Jones is especially good at unraveling a multiplex of back stories, necessary to fill in what is otherwise presented as a very routine existence: an estranged husband dying of cancer in "Resurrecting Methuselah"; an abusive relationship needing a community's intervention in "Common Law"; a neighborhood disrupted by "Bad Neighbors"; an elderly widower rediscovering his youth as a "Rich Man." A Korean war veteran seeking new meaning in life serves as the kernel for the title story. In some of the stories, Jones blurs the boundaries between the spiritual and material worlds--in "Root Worker," "A Poor Guatemalan Dreams of a Downtown in Peru," and "The Devil Swims Across Anacostia," for example--showing his respect and understanding of the power and persistence of African American folklore, much of which he admittedly learned from his mother, to whom all of his books have been dedicated.
Three lines into the first story, "In the Blink of God's Eye," we know that Jones has returned to familiar territory: "Godforsaken Washington," the narrator calls it. As is the case with this and the other 13 stories, circumstance complicates character. Jones barely hints at this strategy as he carefully moves outward through layers of narration. And it is here that his imaginative powers are at their best. We see vivid details close-up rather than at a distance, read prose that is as lucid as it is evocative, and treasure the ironic turns and twists that make the stories anything but predictable. There is the case of Caesar Matthews in "Old Boys, Old Girls," who has less than a gnat's chance of resuming a normal life after his release from prison. The story ends in death, but not Caesar's, and it allows for a reawakening of human feeling, as he engages in a ritual cleansing of a dead woman's body. The volume is full of such moments that are skillfully executed.
Jones doesn't stumble as he ventures into new territory far beyond his native Washington, DC. In fact, his preferences for digression and flashback and the deliberateness that mark his style work especially well in the stories that take us to the fictive towns in Tennessee, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Kansas during the early decades of the twentieth century. These scenes and dialogues are some of the collection's most memorable. In "Tapestry," for example, Jones has Anne Perry's mother set the tone and theme for the story in one stroke: "Honey, I needs to confess to you that many's the woman in the world done been bamboozled by nothing." The story is a striking example of the way that Jones cuts to the heart of the matter on most things. When her future husband comes to visit, Anne compares his features to her other suitors' and thinks them "Too light ... Dark had a way of touching the heart. Light, she had decided at seventeen and a hail only shook hands." It is 1933, and relationships of the sort that Anne and George form must bear the weight of their times. The two are among the many who cross the Potomac River, the symbolic Mason-Dixon line, to join the "talking dead people."
This retrospective is not to be understood as a nostalgic return to a golden age. If anything, going back and forth between major historical periods, seeing life as it was lived once-upon-a-time underscores the complicated nature of migration and its attendant meanings. "So many of the descendants of slaves had done well in Washington, for themselves and for the flesh of their flesh," we are told in "Adam Robinson Acquires Grandparents and a Little Sister," the one story whose title is perhaps a bit too transparent. This review of slaves' descendants is offered tongue in cheek, and sometimes it is hard to grasp Jones's penchant for subtlety. The story, however, is not about Maggie and Noah Robinson's achievements as slaves' descendants; a new reality faces them. Old and retired, they must become parents again, this time for two grandchildren, abandoned by a son whom they have lost to drugs.
In Uncle Tom's Children (1937), Richard Wright issued a powerful protest against southern racism and brutality, hoping his words might be seen as a call to action. Edward P. Jones, who admits to having been greatly inspired by Wright's short stories, does not exhibit such idealism. From our vantage point in 2006, something went terribly wrong, and Jones writes out of this aftermath. We all bear some responsibility. "All the bad thas gonna happen to you done already happened," says one of the characters, Derek Bennington, in a statement that we might consider representative. That echo does not stop us from seeing things of beauty or learning the hard lessons that life inevitably teaches. Fortunately for us, a writer of such mastery and skill has chosen to give the full measure of his devotion to the silenced, the lost, the forgotten, in short, to All Aunt Hagar's Children. The result is a remarkable achievement indeed.
University of Kansas
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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