The Known World
by Edward P. Jones
Amistad, 388 pp., $13.95 (paper)
Lost in the City (1992), Edward P. Jones’s first book, is a collection of melancholy stories set in black neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. From story to story, each told with an anxiety-swelling calm, the years go by, beginning in the late 1950s, the era of urban renewal when slums were razed, and ending in the mid-1980s, the time of both crack cocaine and gentrification. Jones offers portraits of various inner-city institutions: the corner grocery, the Social Security office, an apartment house full of old people. His characters range from a vicious petty criminal who burglarizes his father’s house after his mother’s funeral to a member of a gospel quartet ambivalent at seeing one of the churches they perform in burned to ashes. A late-twentieth-century history of black people in D.C. accumulates in these haunting tales about people who can’t escape their circumstances. Geography, the condition of getting stuck, is, indeed, fate.
In “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,” a young taxi driver who became a widower at nineteen can’t decide to move house before “the community was obliterated.” By 1961, his tidy black neighborhood, not a slum, is marked for railroad development. Eventually, when the houses around him have been abandoned, rats invade, destroying the pigeons in his daughter’s rooftop coop. Throughout the story we are concentrating mostly on the way a motherless girl and her anxious father helplessly enter a phase of mutual disenchantment. We are as surprised as the father is that rats, the presiding metaphor everywhere for urban woe, should embody the social forces that defeat his efforts to protect his daughter from more of the world’s hurts.
What happens when working-class neighborhoods lose their cohesion is very much the social meaning of Lost in the City. The support of people who accept you, who patronize your business, or who take it upon themselves to keep an eye on your children—such people are just gone over the years. In “The Store,” a young man who regards being the clerk in a corner grocery as yet another shitty job, “a slave,” soon comes to appreciate sharing the woman store owner’s authority in a neighborhood where a fifth of her customers buy on credit. The sweet daughter of one troublesome family is the apple of the childless store owner’s eye, but when she accidentally runs her over with her Cadillac, she is accused of having killed the child deliberately. She is ostracized by people who had depended on her sympathy, as if to say that deprivation sometimes leads to other kinds of lack, to poverty of imagination, poverty of feeling, and hungers of the spiritual sort.
In “The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed,” Jones captures perfectly the mood of freedom among black youth in the early 1960s in their confident, careless talk, the pop hymns that they sing, the way their rear ends appear to oncoming traffic when they stand in the street and lean through the driver …