Reading Edward P. Jones is humbling.
His prose is hauntingly beautiful, his people and places hypnotic. And his stories -- oh, his stories! -- with their quiet power and lilting patois: They give us what is surely meant, in the everyday sense, by the phrase "the African-American experience."
In "All Aunt Hagar's Children," Jones' second collection of short stories, Washington D.C. is the setting or destination for 14 unforgettable pieces -- almost all of them featuring strong women, some also featuring strong men. The time spans the last century, yet each story is timeless.
"Murder was a dance on the more complicated side of life," a young Korean War veteran muses in the title piece -- after his mother asks him to look into the homicide of her close friend Agatha's only son.
"it just worries the heart so much," Agatha tells the young veteran. "It worries the mind. I can't sleep at night. A few crumbs of why would be better than what I'm gnawin on now."
Three invincible women figure in this story -- the trio bound together from the childhood day when they left a terrible human secret in the woods of Alabama. The "Hagar" of its title is the name of the Egyptian slave of Abraham's wife Sarah in the Bible, and Jones' tales often feel like parables and use Biblical names (as in "Resurrecting Methuselah" wherein we even find a teacher named "Mr. Methuselah").
"All Aunt Hagar's Children" is a phrase, Jones has said, his mother used for black people. In his Hagar stories, all of the protagonists are black and somehow torn between the "new world" of urban Washington, and the old ways of the deep South (from whence they or their parents came).
Caucasians appear, if at all, on the fringes of the Hagar stories -- and most are only silently present, as in references to "the other Washington, known for facade and neglect," or, as Morton, a chauffeur, says to Maddie, his ailing wife's day companion, "Leave that 'Mr.' stuff for white folks. They got a need greater than mine."
Jones' Hagar stories are unusual, giving us private looks at a rarely-really-seen world -- where the human condition reigns and few pretend it doesn't.
We also experience a seldom seen Washington, which appears in several eras here -- in the selection titled "In the Blink of God's Eye," as a place where, long ago, "they hung babies in night trees." We see domestic violence, murder, poverty and adultery mix with a forbearance, and a love for children so fierce that the spirit always triumphs.
We see Yvonne, the alcoholic who calls happiness "God's trick;" Fish Eyes, the dope supplier, who "would kill God if He owed him money," Caesar, the murderer with a heart of gold, and Arlene, the sole survivor of great tragedy, now able to see above and beyond.
Everyone, no matter what the advantages, "must fight to stay afloat," Arlene says. "We want, we rage, we desire, we fail, we succeed. We stand in that long, long line."
Jones, despite his often somber tone, writes with the lyricism of Turgenev (and with dialects reminiscent of Faulkner). He never judges, he never preaches. He simply brings us fictional characters so real we can practically touch them.
He portrays childhood magnificently -- moving effortlessly at times into the dreamy world of a children's tale. At one point, the young Dr. Holloway of "Root Worker" recalls "all the excitement of a Saturday on H Street. . . The Atlas announcing in big letters on its marquee what extraordinary movie awaited a child just steps beyond the ticket booth. And candy without end that might rot a girl's teeth on any other day of the week, but not on a special Saturday."
In "Common Law," Jones gives us a definitive piece: Here we meet Georgia and Kenyon, the Everyman and woman of domestic violence:
"'Georgia, this here my friend Kenyon,' Amy Witherspoon's father Matthew said the night he introduced her to the man who would knock her down the stairs and dare her to get up and come for some more." Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his 2003 novel "The Known World," and the PEN/Hemingway Award for his first short story collection, "Lost in the City." Of the 14 stories in his new collection, five appeared previously in The New Yorker.
One is hard put to say which among these tales is one's favorite, or even best, they all spill so perfectly from Jones' deep soul. He is clearly an author to follow -- not only to see what flows next from his golden pen but to listen to the truths he whispers through his stunning fiction.
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.
Aunt Hagar's Children
By Edward P. Jones
Amistad, 416 pages, $25.95