By Samuel Doku
Edward P. Jones is a master story-teller. The subtlety of his plots, the profound realism of his settings, the brilliance of his allusions, and the ingenuity of his symbolisms conflate to make reading his works a joy to behold as they provide readers with mordant epiphanies. It is this depth in his art that charts many epistemological paths of deconstruction to Jones’s works. Jones is inspired by great writers such as William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Anton Chekhov, and Flannery O’Connor, to name just a few.
However, Jones is a complete revelation when his works are juxtaposed with the great writers who influenced him. To Nathaniel Hawthorne and O’Connor, the forest signifies evil as it is exemplified in “Young Goodman Brown” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Again, to Herman Melville, the whale as in “Moby Dick,” symbolizes evil. But in Jones’s short stories, the wolf becomes a symbolism of evil while the woods prefigure life and goodness.
Washington, DC as Setting
Further, while many great writers create imaginary cities and towns to inform their settings (Faulkner’s YoknapatawphaCounty and Toni Morrison’s Ruby readily come to mind), Jones uses the nation’s capital, Washington, DC as the setting for his two volumes of short stories: Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children. Although some of the stories were set in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the realistic impact of the stories are never lost to anyone who reads his volumes.
Realism is the portrayal of everyday life, and some of the milieus and tableaux in Jones’s narrations resonate with unbelievable replications in characters found in contemporary homes and on the streets of Washington, DC. Cruelty, generosity, desertion, feminine guile, male craftiness, canting, piety, drug peddling, inebriation, and temperance are just a synecdoche of the many themes that abound in Jones’s works, including his Pulitzer Prize award winning novel, The Known World. To this end, the Armageddon (the constant battles between good and evil) and the Apocalypse (the ultimate triumph of good over evil) provide a rich overlay of some of the short stories in All Aunt Hagar’s Children and make the work an astounding project in realism.
Realism as Pragmatic Experience
Realism is the portrayal of the everyday life of the average person, the common individual, or the practical in literature. Many literary works by African Americans resonate with an intense pragmatism of everyday experience. To many blacks in America, this lived experience or empiricism dates all the way back to the Middle Passage when black people were forcefully removed from their continent and shipped to other continents. As part of their diabolic strategy to disfigure, dismantle, and disorient the enslaved of their indigenous identity, language, culture, and history, slave masters strongly forebode them to be educated. Compelled to develop new modes of communication, the enslaved created their own vernacular from which sprang new forms of expression in music to enable black America to provide a unique cultural repository for America. But the creation of the vernacular also created a unique situation for the African American because, in addition, to the oral form of expression, the African American also must know how to express him or herself in mainstream or standard discourse. Coupling oral discourse with American standard discourse in an African American novel to depict realism is good, even great, so Edward P. Jones creates characters who communicate in the vernacular as well as in standard English “because anyone who is able to speak standard English well wins the respect of white people and other black people,” observes Jones about one of his characters, Sergeant Horace Perkins.
In All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Jones revisits realism, a narrative technique that first surfaced in American literature after the Civil War. The setting of All Aunt Hagar’s Children provides an empiricist experience in the nation’s capital, Washington, DC. Paradoxically, some southern black characters in literature seem to have no chance at all to progress because they live in communities that refuse to see them as equals, and so, they are put in what Marilyn Frye calls the double-bind in which they have been reified in time and space. In such situations, do they keep running all the time as the Grandfather tells the narrator in Invisible Man, and Antoine Mathew reiterates it to Grant in A Lesson Before Dying, or as Jean Paul Sartre idea of existentialism espouses, they must take their destinies into their own hands and break the yokes of oppression and hegemony that have made them stagnant and unprogressive? Jones’s characters do not seem to be constricted by any appalling conditions.
Manichean Dilemma of Characters
Whatever dilemma Jones’s characters find themselves in is the result of poor decisions, callousness, and inebriation. Jones relives the experience of blacks in Washington, DC in his short stories, stories that are found not lacking in profound symbolism and synecdoche. Thematically, the novel is a rich tapestry woven to represent the good, bad, diligent, deviant, defiant, the brave, courageous, party-lovers, and most of all the community. It is a novel whose characters are not devoid of spiritual stasis In effect, so they do not have to wait until the final days of the universe to discover whether they will be crushed by the Armageddon or saved and redeemed by the Apocalypse; their Armageddon and Apocalypse are informed daily by internal tensions and conflicts through their choices and actions. Further, the representation of marriage, desertion, childhood romance and infatuation, the Cartesian composites of good and evil, justice, dignity, and responsibility add to the novel’s realistic appeal.
Themes of Dislocation, Marriage, and Racism
“In the Blink of God’s Eye,” the first story in the volume, is richly embedded in themes such as time dislocation, the marriage and dissolution of Aubrey and Ruth Patterson, a mild reference to divine discrimination against blacks, and indeed, racism as it was experienced under President McKinley. In a resounding euphemism, Jones takes the reader back into time and comments about the genealogy of a newly married couple, Ruth and Aubrey Patterson: “They were the children of once-upon-a-time slaves, born into a kind of freedom, but they had traveled down through the wombs with what all their kind had been born with—the knowledge that God had promised next week to everyone but themselves” (10).
Interestingly, the allusion refers to a time in history when there were intense Jim Crow laws in the South, but the Almighty God seemingly looked on with an attitude that can best be described as askance because when He was promising a bright future to everyone, black people were excluded from His list. Jones takes the reader through many of the daily occurrences that simultaneously make life unsettling, abrasive, and brilliant. Aubrey sees his wife talking to Earl and becomes suspicious. Earl is a blacksmith who caught his wife cheating on him in Georgia as a result of which he beat his wife’s paramour into a comatose condition and fled from that State. Since that day, Aubrey is gripped by the internal tension of jealousy, and it eventually ruins their marriage as Ruth packed bag and baggage and together with Miles, a baby that had been abandoned, returned to her mother in Virginia. The way jealousy destroyed Aubrey and Ruth’s marriage then still poses a venomous threat to many marriages in America today. In this tableau, the Armageddon comes in the forms of jealousy and envy to destroy the marriage of the young couple.
Homodiegetic Point of View
While “In the Blink of God’s Eye” is a heterodiegetic narration, the second story, “Spanish in the Morning” in contrast, is one of the stories narrated from a homodiegetic point of view with the anonymous narrator recounting typical scenes of everyday life in a Northwest community in the District. This realistic tale reverberates with the narrator’s precociousness, his uncle, Cyphax’s, inundation with his battles with evil that render him incapable of staying out of jail, his paternal grandfather’s present of a radio to him after he had started kindergarten, and the salience or importance of education. The narrator also learns at a very early age that inebriation is a bad habit, as his grandmother deserted his grandfather because he found it nonchalantly difficult to practice temperance.
On that score, he was constantly drunk. In one of those instances of abject inebriation, the grandmother packed everything of hers and together with the narrator’s father and his siblings, left the South for the District. While jealousy is the main cause of contention between the young married couple in the first story, alcohol presents the grandfather with a boundary of Armageddon he could not efface with the inherent temperance in the Apocalypse in the second story. The narrator also presents adolescent infatuation between two elementary school students that is quickly quelled in the Catholic ambience that gave birth to the idea in the first place. Again, this tale is a stark representation of realism as it also is replete with superstition rooted in African beliefs.
A Man Has Breast Cancer in “Resurrecting Methuselah”
“Resurrecting Methuselah” is a story in which the reader discovers that Sergeant Percival Channing finds to his chagrin and dismay that he has breast cancer after he had finished making love to a Japanese call woman. Serving in the military half a world away, Channing is flown to Walter Reed after undergoing surgery but full recuperation became impossible and mars his marriage to his high school sweetheart, Anita. It is also a story in which a school teacher, Methuselah, tries diligently to instill religion into the lives of his students.
Naturalistic elements of snowstorm and sweltering heat prefigure the near paralysis of Caeser, the insanity of Cathedral, and the death of Yvonne Miller in “Old Boys, Old Girls,” a story that is cluttered with many dysphemisms. “Old Boys, Old Girls” reads like a script from the ethnocentric and bigoted HBO series, Oz. Betrayal, murder, transvestism, and intense hallucination abound in the story. A fight between Pancho and Caeser mimics an epic contest between Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the world’s first story and also parodies an epic wrestling match between Okonkwo and Amalinze the Cat in Things Fall Apart.
Eventually, Caeser is released from incarceration for murder but simultaneously toughened by the rigorousness of prison life and humbled by the relentless manner in which his friend, Multrey was betrayed and murdered in jail, Caeser indulges in self-ostracization after his release. However, when his former lover, Yvonne Miller is uncannily murdered, it presents Caeser with two choices: to continue being a law abiding citizen and work diligently to take care of himself (in which case goodness would eventually triumph over evil) or return to his former “gangster” life in Baltimore and allow crime to inform his being, his humanity, his sensibility, and his individuality. Jones leaves that choice for the reader to make.
Revisioning Chester Himes in All Aunt Hagar’s Children
“All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” the title of the gamut volume of short stories, is an interesting mélange of murder that parodies a scene in The Heat’s On, one of Chester Himes’s detective fiction series. In addition, there are an attempted rape and the educational ambitions of an abused girlfriend. Again, this story is a homodiegetic narration in which the anonymous narrator is challenged to capitalize on his military experience and on his job as a legal clerk for a D.C attorney to help solve the murder. Ike Appleton, a notorious drug pusher, is brutally and cold-bloodedly murdered in the early 1950s. With the assistance of some female friends, the narrator pins Appleton’s murder on Fish Eyes, a ruthless drug mogul who according to Jones “wouldn’t mind killing the Almighty God Himself if He owed him money.” Eventually, the narrator ferrets the truth when he discovers that it was Appleton’s brilliant girlfriend, Alona, the mother of his daughter, who blew his brains off to end an abusive relationship.
Woods Symbolize Life and Rebirth
Furthermore, unlike Faulkner and O’Connor, Jones inverts the function of the woods in “All Aunt Hagar’s Children,” so in it, the woods symbolize life and rebirth. When a white man attempted to rape Ms. Agatha Appleton who was then fourteen years old, together with her two siblings, they stoned the potential rapist until he was seemingly half dead whereupon the three siblings dragged him into the woods with the presumption that he would die. But three days later, the man woke up from his vertigo state and confessed that he had been hit by something from God as a result of which he converted
to become a preacher. Murders abound in “All Aunt Hagar’s Children” as sixty-six murders were committed to paint a vivid picture of the tremendous danger facing young men in the nation’s capital then. Indeed, nothing has changed much from the dangerous fifties as young men and in some instances, young girls, continue to lose their lives daily through gun violence in the District.
“The Poor Guatemalan Dream of a Downtown in Peru” is a story that stretches the faith and character of the protagonist, Arlene Baxter. She is orphaned at eight and left to be raised by her Grandfather. After initial hiccoughs, Baxter overcomes a troubling dyslepsia and grows to become proud owner of two doctorate degrees from two of the District’s universities. A long winding, meandering relationship with her enduring boyfriend, Howard University-educated physician Scott Catrell, ends with Baxter having a son, Antonio, at the ripe age of forty-two.
While pregnant and still unmarried, Baxter was presented with the choice of having the baby or aborting the pregnancy. Goodness prevailed there as she gave birth to Antonio, her only son. Baxter and Catrell finally tie the knot blissfully in Buena Serra, Peru. The story is also embellished by time dislocation as Jones briefly reenacts the raid in 1854 on Harper’s Ferry by John Brown. The presence of Brown and his courageous cohorts in the woods of West Virginia sends a father to visit them. In his absence, the man’s son sets their home ablaze killing everybody in the house, including the matriarch and the man’s other children. The visit to the woods saved the man’s life.
Power of Witches
In “The Root Worker,” the matriarch of the Holloway’s, Alberta, is tormented by two witches who represent destructive forces filled with nihilistic tendencies determined to wipe the Holloway’s out of this world. They bombard her with constant hallucination until she becomes an epitome of a nervous wreck. Medical science could not help as hospitalizations at St Elizabeth’s and D.C. General Hospitals all turned out to be a classic exercise in futility. Eventually, her husband and their physician daughter, Glynnis, took her to a witch doctor or conjurer in North Carolina since the efficacy of medical science could not work its potent magic on Mrs. Holloway. The conjurer uses a root mixture to cure her. Jones’s vivid description of Mrs. Holloway as a “kind and generous woman created to one day accompany God as He strolled and pondered in the Garden of Heaven” (192) lends proof to Alberta’s humaneness, a sensibility that so infuriated the forces of darkness that they decided to destroy her and her family, but they were unsuccessful. The story is also informed by jealousy, rage, and barbarity as a deranged husband murders his wife and renders his two children motherless.
Armageddon and Apocalypse
The rest of the short stories in the collection, “Common Law,” “Adam Robinson Acquires Grandparents and a Little Sister,” “The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River,” “Blind-sided,” “A Rich Man,” “Bad Neighbors,” and “Tapestry” are also richly informed by the themes of the Armageddon and Apocalypse, drug peddling, hedonism, a family’s pact with the devil, a story that reminds readers of Dr. Faust who sold his soul to the devil for wealth; naturalism, abandonment, the devastating effect of inebriation, murder, some of D.C.’s trees becoming vanishing frontiers in Jones’s cartographic portrayal of the District, and reunion of families in the South.
In “Common Law,” the theme of the Armageddon and the Apocalypse reflects in Kenyon Morrison and Moses Carson respectively. Jones’s depiction of Morrison as a chic, sassy, sartorial-driven chauffeur and molester of women is the result of a constant inebriation. He molests the mother of his only child and later, sweet-talks and moves in to stay with Georgia, who like the Wife of Bath in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales had hitherto, married and divorced three times.
Soon, Morrison’s repeated abuse of Georgia notoriously develops into a burgeoning everyday occurrence. In the middle of one such melee, Georgia’s neighbor, Carson confronted Morrison, but the latter outrageously punched the former first, and it resulted in a fight in which Carson displayed his prowess and effectively subdued Morrison in a fight children in the neighborhood agreed was one of the best they had seen. Carson, who fought in defense of Georgia, becomes a representative of the good (Apocalypse) to defeat Morrison who represents evil. “Common Law” couple is the sobriquet neighbors gave the live-in relationship between Morrison and Georgia. Interestingly, Georgia’s third husband was fatally shot by a blind man with a pistol, an accidental homicide that substantiates Himes’s claim in Blind Man with a Pistol that when a pistol gets into the hands of a blind man, good and innocent people lose their lives.
“Adam Robinson Acquires Grandparents and a Little Sister” realistically depicts the District as a doppelganger. The city is haunted by its diurnal rashes of murders and molestation of women, but Maggie and Noah Robinson are there to uphold the good name of the District. Jones also paints a copasetic landscape of the District as one in which its trees have long become vanishing frontiers cartographically. The city is also home to many foster children, and grandparents reset their buttons of life as parents. When Caleb Robinson and his fiancée abandoned their children, it is not surprising that the older Robinson’s assume that responsibility.
In “The Devil Swims across the Anacostia River,” Jones revisits Dr. Faust’s infamous pact with the devil. It is a story in which a family sells its soul to the devil for wealth, and it returns to haunt them. Furthermore, Laverne’s hankering of popularity is a familiar tableau that many young women aspire to attain. Her excessive partying and impeccable dancing are not frivolous effusions from the author. They are realistic dimensions of everyday life in the District of Columbia. In “Blindsided,” Roxanne Stapleton, the protagonist goes blind suddenly on a bus, and from then on, her life sashayed from a hedonistic character to a quick-tempered woman, petulant at those who sympathized with her. In the end, she loses her boyfriend to her best friend. Her blindness, however, proves to be a blessing in disguise as she is re-united with her estranged daughter. ‘A Rich Man” explores cross generational boundaries on drugs and how they adversely impact those who unwittingly indulge in the practice. “Bad Neighbors” portrays black families on either side of the totem pole living together in a mixed economy neighborhood. “Tapestry” rounds out the impressive collection of tales that have profound roots in realism.
The Beauty of Language and Realism
Clearly, the collection is well endowed as a stellar book, a book whose rich tapestry woven uniquely in realism is unquestionable as the quadrants of D.C mentioned in the book are real, not imaginary; the streets are real, not fakes; the corridors, avenues, rivers, and alleys are also real, not fortuitous. It is a rare collection of sanguine stories that digresses from the usual pattern of African American protest novels whose quintessential objective is to use literature as an inexorable tool to protest against the constrictions, hegemony, limitations, and hopelessness that dogged the progress of the marginalized in America in the past.
With his optimistic tales, Jones’s message to youths today is that they should put the groveling treatment, the abject conditions that bred and fostered hopelessness, and the callousness of elitist whites of the past behind them and lift themselves up and stride boldly and courageously toward their dreams, regardless of what it is. Thus, a language whose cadence and syncopation were once strident and cacophonous, in Jones’s hands, becomes euphemistic and euphoric; it is sweet music to the ears and mnemonic to the mind, so let everybody dance to its blissful tune. Indeed, Edward P. Jones has given the reader another masterpiece, and he seems to have performed even better than some of his predecessors and inspirers.
Jones, Edward P. All Aunt Hagar’s Children. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.