The fourteen stories in Edward P. Jones’ Lost in the City are all set in Washington D.C, the capital of the United States. This is not the Washington of presidents, bureaucrats or political intrigue but rather the Washington of urban Northwest to urban Northeast, long-time home of African-Americans.
It seems to me that three factors converged in the creation of this anthology. First, and it can be a cliché, but it is evident that Edward P. Jones loves the city of his birth, the community where he hails from and its people among whom he still lives.
Second, there is the incredible knowledge and detail that the author brings to each story and to each character. He uses his knowledge of the space and the streets between Northeast and Northwest to such advantage in this collection that it feels, as I read each story, that I was walking through my neighborhood, meeting and greeting people that I’ve known all my life.
Third, there is Jones’ writing style, which is neutral and nuanced at the same time. He does not adorn his stories with useless flourishes nor employs any modernist/postmodernist tricks. He lets his characters speak for themselves, without any judgment; he gets out of their way in the telling of their stories. Each character is shown plainly, but with such insight and truth, as they grapple with their failures, their self-delusions, their aspirations and the difficulties of being African-American.
In Lost in the City, Jones paints in the multi-faceted and complex life of the people behind the often-quoted dismal statistics that describe being black in America.
The quality of the stories in Lost in the City is extremely high and consistent across the entire collection. I enjoyed reading every one of the fourteen stories. Some of the stories were weaker relative only to others in the collection; but this weakness is not due to the plots or the author’s style but rather is editorial in nature.
As a collection, the stories fit together quite well. The cast of characters is large and varied. There are young children grappling with loss and their first days in school. Teenagers acting out and finding themselves amid a background of violence. Young men, some who completely lose their way, others who ultimately find a measure of self-worth in a dehumanizing environment. There are single mothers and adult daughters dealing with the absence of parents and partners. There are mothers who refuse to face the reality of drug-dealing children. Wives, some who must accept the philandering histories of their husbands and some who yearn for more intimacy in their marriage. And there are the elderly, men and women who in the twilight of their years deal with the bitter hand that life has dealt them. Some of the stories are hopeful, others end without resolution, all are tender, heartbreaking and told with grace and dignity. My favorites were:
The Girl Who Raised Pigeons – a magnificent story about Betsy Ann Morgan, a pre-teen, who is raised by her widowed father. Betsy Ann is inspired by the pigeons that she keeps. An ingenious way of writing a coming-of-age tale.
The Store – my absolute favorite in the collection and one of the best short stories that I’ve ever read. It follows the transition and path that a young man takes as he matures from a reckless youth into a man who accepts responsibility and ultimately comes to understand and appreciate the people around him, his community, his worth and the intrinsic value of life. What is remarkable about this story is the sheer detail that Jones packs into it. The store, where the young man works, which serves as focal point of the community, the people who suffer and endure much and always the streets of the Northeast that frame their lives. The story is a painting of a community that is much loved by the man that penned the story.
The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed – a chronicle of one day in the lives of four teenage girls and the devastation in the aftermath of the murder of a friend.
“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 understand.”
Lost in the City – a terrific story that follows the drug –induced inner ramblings of a rich lawyer, who wants to get lost in the city on the night of her mother’s death. A great illustration of a one’s desire to sometimes get away from it all.
“Just keep on driving and get us lost in the city. I’ll pay you. I have the money.”
“No, ma’am, it ain’t a matter of money. I just thought… You know, your mother… And besides, ma’am, I’m a Capitol cab driver and I ain’t allowed to get lost.”
“Try.” She said. “Try ever so hard…. And the more lost you get us, the more you get paid. Or is it, the more loster, or the most lost? There are, you know, Mr. Cab Driver, so many grammatical rules that the grammar people say we must not break.”
“Yes, ma’am, I know. I’ve heard it said.”
This collection is magnificent. It is one of the most beautiful portraits of a community and its people that I’ve encountered. And without a doubt, it adds not only to the culture of the United States but also to the whole world. As a snapshot of a people, it feels in the details and colors the facts of history.
I fell in love with the mind and art of Edward P. Jones when I read his award-winning novel, The Known World. What a novel and what a writer! This collection heralds Jones as one of the greatest short stories writers of his time. And so I crown him my ‘it’ American writer of the moment and I look forward to reading more of his works.
I more than recommend this collection, I recommend the author. Read him, get Lost in the City. It will be good for you.
Have you read any of book by Edward P. Jones? Are you as enthused about his works as I am?