- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

Washington has slews of memoirists, muckrakers, and military historians, but few fiction writers have fallen enough in love with the city to actually write about it.

Even in the genre fiction about espionage or the corridors of power, the city is missing or poorly sketched. It all plays out — and Hollywood has echoed this — in limos from the Hill to some hotel, in rental cars to Langley, or in Senate staff rooms with a slightly obstructed view of the imperial granite backdrop.

It is thus all the more welcome that Washington native son Edward P. Jones, 53, has been for decades quietly churning out stories set in the city’s low-rise landscape of row houses and corner stores. Now, he’s broken through with a landmark new novel.

The accolades have been enviable. His first collection of short stories, “Lost in the City,” won a Pen/Hemingway Award in 1992, and now with his first novel, “The Known World,” he is a finalist for a National Book Award. Winners will be announced Wednesday.

Set almost exclusively in the Shaw neighborhood, “Lost” weaves an intergenerational tapestry of the black community, where church ladies, aspiring artists, hard workers and layabouts mingle in solid friendships or often fractious families. Children drift from home to home, numb to the on-again, off-again affairs of their parents; a humble shop worker gets a girl who’s out of his league through sheer determination; mothers matter-of-factly accept gifts from their drug-dealing sons; anger and resignation simmer somewhere below the surface; and violence may erupt without warning.

Mr. Jones has an eye for a good opener: “One day in late October, Woodrow Cunningham came home early with his bad heart and found his daughter with two boys.” And for the ironies of easy money: “two hundred dollar shoes and holes in his socks.” Most of all, his stories reveal a tenderness for the hardworking poor, those who toil for the sake of a stable home, who resist the temptations of the street.

The black middle class fares less well, bearing the brunt of Mr. Jones’ gentle parody: A high school principal, for example, speaks at the dinner table as if each day “he memorized an awfully big word from the dictionary.” Self-consciously restrained in their emotions, disdainful toward the darker-skinned brethren, these characters live in awkward limbo.

Black upward strivers don’t fare well in “The Known World,” either, but here they are not so much mocked as set loose to navigate fragile freedoms in a white man’s world.

Set in imaginary Manchester County somewhere in mid-19th-century Virginia, the tale revolves around a freed slave, Henry Townsend. Taking advice from his previous owner, Henry stakes his ambition on owning slaves of his own. “Don’t settle for just a house and some land, boy,” counsels the sometimes benevolently paternal former owner. “Take hold of it all. There are white men out there, Henry, who ain’t got nothin. You might as well set in and take what they ain’t takin.”

Henry’s appetite for human property naturally horrifies his blood father, Augustus, a master woodcarver and freed slave himself who, upon hearing the news, beats him with one of his hand-carved canes and more or less disowns him. As we later learn, Augustus’ fate is itself subject to the whims of white men “who ain’t got nothing,” that lot of bitter dirt farmers who mistake petty cruelty for manhood. Things then turn complicated and more than a little tragic.

This is, to say the least, not Margaret Mitchell’s South of gilded ballrooms and cheerful house slaves. Instead, it strikes a more mundane, sour and plausible note: crumbling estates in the middle of nowhere, reluctant and subversive slaves, bored abandoned wives, and melancholic owners haunted by guilt, chronic pain, and creditors.

On these lonely plantations, the supposedly ironclad terms of the owner/slave contract are constantly tested by human interaction, conjugal or otherwise, like some Southern version of the Stockholm syndrome. Mr. Jones necessarily captures all the cruelties and chains that were the experience of slavery, but the characters, both black and white, are first and foremost human beings, error-prone and erratic, proud or hypocritical, honest or greedy.

There’s not much florid period detail in “The Known World.” Instead, the antebellum South comes to life through austere, rustic coloring that consistently rings true. After eating some tough chicken, a character wonders if they had “riled up the bird before they wrung its neck.” Another complains about bloodhounds who “couldn’t find stink on a skunk.” Baroque but never gushing, peppered in equal measure with homespun wisdom and references to the Almighty, “World” is more accessible yet no less effective than, say, Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason and Dixon,” another courageous stab at period writing.

For all its understated strength, the novel suffers from an avoidable flaw: Too many marginal characters are referred to by their proper name, a literary tic not served by the nonlinear structure. A typical chapter opens, “The day Skiffington first came out of Caldonia’s place about Alice and Priscilla and Jamie disappearing, Moses had expected to eat supper again with Caldonia that night. …” Mr. Jones may be trying to dignify the nameless, but he only clutters the narrative flow.

However, that’s a minor quibble. Along with a thoroughly imagined world, there are beautiful character arcs here that continually tease and confuse the readers’ sympathies. No pat inspirationalism or didactic anger, just cool unadorned realism.

“The truly serious novelist,” observed the eminent black author and critic Albert Murray, “has what amounts to an ambivalence toward the human predicament … on the one hand, he is always proclaiming his love for mankind, and on the other he is forever giving the devil his due.” By coloring his characters in ambivalent shades of gray, Mr. Jones does not so much transcend race as mute it down in the context of the larger human predicament.

It is true that in Mr. Jones’ re-created Shaw (less so in the novel), whites are still shadowy figures — “government people” or tourists. Washington still awaits an epic Tom Wolfe-style collage of black and white, Georgetown and U Street and all the lawyers, pool hustlers, bike couriers, barflies, dishwashers and diplomats in between.

But for the moment, in a city whose two halves still interact awkwardly, if at all, it doesn’t hurt to have an original, homegrown serious novelist. Refreshingly apolitical in a political town, Edward Jones fleshes out, warts and all, the common ground.

Stefan Sullivan, author of two previous books, is currently working on a novel about the District in the 1960s.

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