What is the source of Edward P. Jones’ magic? If you had asked me a month ago, I might have mentioned: plot, social importance, sweep. These were the Tolstoyan qualities I admired so much in 2003’s The Known World, surely one of the finest first novels published by an American in the last half century. “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” the first story in Jones’ new collection, Aunt Hagar’s Children seemed to confirm my intuitions, with its finely-etched rotogravure of African-American urbanization in the late 19th century. But, having just reached the end of the book, I am forced to reconsider. Some of Jones’ finest stories are as contemporary, elliptical, and personal as anything Alice Munro or my beloved Deborah Eisenberg has done. And, like Munro and Eisenberg, the man has taken the venerable short-story form and somehow made it his own. I mean he is a master. The source of his magic? A mystery. Well, no, that’s not quite accurate. What this book does share with The Known World is the Voice. That Edward P. Jones Omniscient Voice, detached yet curiously intimate, plainspoken, quiet, given to sudden, lurching glimpses forward and backward in time. Less James Earl Jones than Jeffrey Wright. The Voice wraps itself around characters, good guys, bad guys, men, women, and children, and loves those characters, and makes them live.
Wyatt Mason has pointed out, in Harper’s, the way the characters in All Aunt Hagar’s Children gesture back to Jones’ first collection, Lost in the City (though one need not have read one to enjoy the other). They are grandchildren, cousins, neighbors of those characters; sometimes they are even the same characters. In lesser hands, this pattern could easily decay into a schematic, but Jones uses these connections as keyholes into his characters’ souls. For him, history is destiny.
Take “Old Boys, Old Girls,” for example. Here Caesar Matthews, of the earlier story “Young Lions,” has landed in prison (where he was headed when last we saw him). Jones’ depiction of the social dynamics of prisons is as wrenching as it is understated. But Caesar’s past – his love life, his family – more than his experiences “on the yard,” shape his future. We are given the details in quick strokes:
He was not insane, but he was three doors from it, which was how an old girlfriend, Yvonne Miller, would now and again playfully refer to his behavior. Who the fuck is this Antwoine bitch? Caesar sometimes thought during the trial. And where is Percy? It was only after the judge sentenced him to seven years in Lorton, D.C.’s prison in Virginia, that matters became somewhat clear again, and in those last moments before they took him away, he saw Antwoine spread out on the ground outside the Prime Property nightclub, blood spurting out of his chest like oil from a bountiful well.
Note the characteristic way Jones stitches a single, anchoring present – the trial – to the past (a girlfriend, a murder) and the future (“those last moments before they took him away”) Note the sublime contrast between the fuzzy “somewhat clear” and the precise image of the bloody well. Every element of this passage will take on an added resonance in the story’s haunting denouement. Like “In the Blink of God’s Eye,” “Old Boys, Old Girls” is one of the best stories in the book. Also noteworthy are “Bad Neighbors,” “A Rich Man,” “Tapestry,” and “Common Law.” As with Lost in the City, we come to know the streets of Washington D.C. as if they were the streets of our own city and their residents as if they were our own neighbors.
One senses that some of Jones’ mid-90s efforts have found their way into this collection, too, and they seem to be lumped together in the book’s middle section. “Resurrecting Methuselah,” “A Poor Guatemalan Dreams of Downtown Peru,” “Root Worker,” and “The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River” find the author struggling with problems of diction, syntax, and plot we know he solved in “The Known World.” The latter three handle the supernatural less assuredly and vividly than Jones usually does, and traces of sentimentalism have not been entirely expunged from this quartet. Whether or not these stories are indeed products of Jones’ literary apprenticeship, the collection might have been just as strong without them.
Still, it is difficult to find fault with All Aunt Hagar’s Children; at 400 pages, it is a massive and mature accomplishment. Claudia, the heroine of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, once chastised her community for confusing aggression with strength, license with freedom, politeness with compassion, comportment with virtue. Edward P. Jones’ omniscient narrators rarely render such judgments, but throughout All Aunt Hagar’s Children, we can feel him leading by example. This is writing that is not only beautiful, but strong, compassionate, good, and free. Which is what we mean when we use the term “literature” – or anyway, should be.