Nostalgia in literature often seems to be left to the usual suspects–the white males. Readers grasp at the prosperity of Fitzgerald’s New York, the stiff-upper-lippedness of Wodehouse’s England, the superhero ’60s/’70s of Lethem and Chabon. Possibly, someone is even yearning for Keillor’s Lake Wobegon. It’s of interest then, when a black novelist takes on a major city that has essentially been left out of the literary loop.1
Edward P. Jones is the author of two previous books, the 1991 collection of short stories Lost in the City and the 2003 novel The Known World. What he has done in All Aunt Hagar’s Children is put together a collection of stories that are filled with well-rounded characters (too often not found in contemporary fiction), loss, tragedy, and a deeply subtle humor that runs the length of the book.
There are fourteen stories in Hagar, as many as there are Stations of the Cross (as well as mirroring the number of stories in his previous collection), and each story can be broken down in a way that emphasizes the source of the characters’ burdens–from their families, society, and themselves. All of the stories are set in or en route to Washington, D.C., and Jones’s heavy reference to the street plan of D.C. leads me to recommend having a map of the area handy.2 Each story traces a journey–planned or unplanned, taken or failed–and an obvious root/route symbolism runs throughout the collection. It should be noted that these are long stories. The entire collection runs nearly 400 pages, and almost all of them are 25 pages or more. It’s a way of writing that works well for Jones, as it allows to him to fully develop each character, as well as develop the close details of setting and atmosphere for which he is well known. It’s sort of funny that his stories have been so frequently labeled as “novelistic” due to their length, because they are also perfectly crafted in a sort of smaller novelistic sense. They are not quite baggy monsters but they avoid the over-tightening that so many contemporary short stories seem to fall victim to.
Befitting a book about family roots, the first story, “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” begins with Ruth Patterson finding a baby in a tree. Having been uprooted, the child is found by Ruth in the dead of night. She takes him in, and her husband Aubrey cannot bear to look at the boy. Especially infuriating to him is Ruth’s decision to name the child after Aubrey’s father:
Aubrey said not a word when he heard her calling the baby Miles; they both had always known that was what they were to call their first son. It would not be untrue to say that it was a very long time before Aubrey stopped thinking that the baby’s mother was returning, and for months and months he went all about Washington, even into Virginia, asking who might have lost a baby boy.
The sadness in this passage, as well as Aubrey’s anger and disappointment, build over the course of the story and ultimately lead to a decision by Ruth that is only corrected in the book’s final story.
Jones is clearly intimate with his predecessors; in various ways he responds to and takes pieces from books like Ellison’s Invisible Man (as in “Spanish in the Morning,” about another intellectually precocious black child), and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, where the Bundren (burden) family travels to bury their mother. Again, that is largely what Hagar is about–the burden of family, of living. Of blackness.
One story that riffs on the Bundren family is “Old Boys, Old Girls,” which demonstrates Jones’s admirable talent to mimic Southern Gothic and add his own humanity to it:
Caesar changed the bed clothing and undressed Yvonne. He got one of her large pots and filled it with warm water from the bathroom and poured into the water cologne of his own that he never used and bath-oil beads he found in a battered container in a corner beside her dresser. The beads refused to dissolve, and he had to crush them in his hands. He bathed her, cleaned out her mouth. He got a green dress from the closet, and underwear and stockings from the dresser, put them on her, and pinned a rusty cameo on the dress over her heart. He combed and brushed her hair, put barrettes in it after he sweetened it with the rest of the cologne, and laid her head in the center of the pillow now covered with one of his clean cases. He gave her no shoes and he did not cover her up, just left her on top of the made-up bed. The room with the dead woman was as clean and as beautiful as Caesar could manage at that time in his life.
But it is in the brilliant title story, a story that seems to have generally been regarded as weaker than the rest (mostly because of the first-person narrator), that Jones shows his true talent for sadness, obligation, and subtle humor. The narrator’s recent return from the Korean War and his subsequent plans for traveling to Alaska are waylaid by his mother and aunt’s plea that he stay and find the man who killed their friend Agatha’s son.3
“‘They killed my Ike,’ Miss Agatha said, as if I need to be reminded. He was one of only sixty-six people murdered in D.C. that first year I was away. ‘Near bout two years gone by, and they ain’t done any more than the day it happened.’”
At its basest premise, it is D.C. noir, a private detective story that speaks of the pressure the narrator’s mother has placed on him to find the murderer, as well as keep her son in D.C. for a while longer. The story speaks of the familial roots that extend even to friends. It speaks of the neglect the black population feels. “One more colored boy outa their hair,” says the narrator’s Aunt Penny. The narrator is hemmed in by fear and racism on both sides, black and white. The surprising ending speaks of violence and shame. It is a powerful story and only upon further rereading does one realize that Jones is also making a base joke the entire time. It pokes fun at and points out the basic stupidity of a pretty commonly held myth regarding black genitalia. Reduced to a few words, the story is about the expectations and burden placed on a black dick (P.I.).
The final story of the collection is “Tapestry,” an appropriate title to end the collection. It is certainly one of the best stories in the book, sad despite our knowledge of the ending. It begins with the possible lives the main character, Anne, could have lived had she married a different man. That we know she married a train porter named George does not dispel the possibility that the story ends in ruins, for on the train they fight, and Anne begins to have second thoughts: “There had been something in George’s voice that she could not forgive. Her heart was breaking, but that was in the nature of hearts, she told herself as the car quieted for the night.” Surely a sad line, but the following line is as good as any to sum up the collection: “It was also in their nature to heal for however long it took, six months, a year, two years.”
These are stories crafted with great love and attentiveness. That no character seems to escape at least a line of description, something maddening in lesser hands, is nearly a tic of sorts, an unwillingness on Jones’s part to marginalize any of his characters. It works only because Jones possesses a Fitzgeraldesque ability to sum a character up in a single sentence: “Her grandfather, healthy then, was in her life as well, but he was off to the side, waiting for God to bring him front and center” (from “A Poor Guatemalan Dream of a Downtown in Peru”). When his characters seem sure to veer into sentimentality, they are abruptly brought back–when in “Resurrecting Methuselah” Anita finds a store that carries candy from her childhood, the candy turns out to be “a bunch of something she could not remember ever knowing.” Jones is one of the few U.S. writers to treat his stories with conviction and reverence, to eschew gimmickry and the urge to prove his imagination. He is exceedingly clever and does not show off about it. 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.
1 Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie comes to mind, as does the forgotten The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. I suppose The Exorcist counts as well, sort of.
2 The only time I’ve been to Washington was for an 8th-grade field trip, and we decidedly did not visit the areas in question.
3 Where he will hunt for gold, a nod to manifest destiny and its unavailability to blacks.
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