I read Edward P. Jones’ short story collection “Lost in the City” on a friend’s recommendation. Published in 1992, this is Jones’ first book that was followed by a novel that won the 2003 Pulitzer (“The Known World”) and another collection of stories (“All Aunt Hagar’s Children” in 2006), both of which I have not read. Each story in “Lost in the City” takes place in Washington, D.C. and features African-American characters from a wide range of social class positions. It is not a stretch to generalize that all the protagonists in the book (as the title might indicate) lose something that they can never regain. For many, the thing that is lost is not tangible but, rather, an image or a dream.
The one story I had already read–“The First Day”–is told from the point of view of a five year-old girl whose mother takes her to register on the first day of school. The duo first visit a well-established, ostensibly middle class elementary school where they are turned down because they don’t live in the school’s jurisdiction. The narrator expresses her confusion at being turned down since the school is directly across the street from her mother’s church—indeed, this is their neighborhood. Her mother can’t understand why they’ve been turned down and argues her case to no avail. They proceed to a different school with a bad reputation. This second elementary school is newer and nicer looking to the narrator, but the scene at registration is chaotic and she is eventually pushed through a rough, impersonal bureaucratic process not unlike triage at a hospital. Yet, once she is given a classroom, our new student is still excited to begin school. As the story ends the reader appreciates the girl’s excitement and optimism at simply being accepted somewhere, however we’re left to rue the girl’s initial rejection, which, we know, portends the limiting of her opportunities in the future.
This story represents the tone of the collection as a whole. Jones is committed to drawing in detail all the characters’ aspirations, and the emotions that come with them; he is invested in their agency. At the same time there is little hopefulness in the events that unfold in these stories. The collection’s two most powerful stories (in my opinion), “The Store” and “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,” both deal with suffering that befalls the characters, their families and their communities systematically. “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” is the first story in the collection and, rooting us in the late 1950s, depicts a time in a black D.C. neighborhood “before the community was obliterated.” While commuter train construction is rumored to displace the residents in the story, the seven year-old protagonist and her father try to raise pigeons in a cage atop her apartment building. As Jones brings us closer to seeing the pigeons’ fate, the neighborhood’s decimation by forces outside the residents’ control troubles the reader while it nags at the characters.
“The Store” locates us over a decade later–indeed the stories seem to unfold chronologically, a nice touch that helps us see long-term geographic and social change in Jones’ city). In this episode a young man in his late teens takes on a “slave” job at a neighborhood grocery store, against his better judgment, in hopes that he will realize the American Dream through his hard work for the proprietor. Over the course of the story we see this striver ascend each and every rank of status within his means, and while we feel a certain pride and hope for his journey Jones tests us by magnifying the enormous sacrifices he makes incidentally along the way. Like some of the other characters in Jones’ stories, this protagonist will in fact live the Dream, but as he emerges into economic prosperity Jones seems to be asking us whether we like the individual he has become.
“Lost in the City” is a haunting work of fiction that for the most part literally lives in the darkness; the characters walk through the shadows and inhabit dim apartments, and the book is littered with striking photographs of dark streets with little white flares of streetlights. Jones, here, has written a kind of recent history of Washington, D.C., in which neighborhoods turn from safe to dangerous, familiar to eerie, bourgeois to ghetto, over the course of 30 years. Many of his characters are children or young adults who know no better than to make the best of opportunities that seem to be diminishing before our eyes. Though these stories can be chilling and demoralizing, there is breathtaking beauty in Jones’ writing. The book feels to me like an essential read.