‘A Rich Man’ by Edward P. Jones

I don’t think there’s a single person on my list who couldn’t’ve been represented by any number of stories. ‘A Rich Man’ is simply the story of Edward P. Jones’s that I think of most often, because it has a passage that makes me laugh out loud every time, and also has one of the most brutal endings of any story I know. I’m still not over it. I won’t ever be over it, and I’ve read it dozens of times. I generally don’t like praising short stories by saying it’s like a novel or it feels like a novel. To me it’s like saying a hummingbird is good enough to be a pelican. I suppose they have some things in common, but why can’t they just be themselves? The thing that Edward P. Jones accomplishes in his stories – one of the things – is that he manages to get the life force of a whole novel into his stories, the emanations of souls. He does other things, too – in time and point of view and setting, his stories go where they need to go. They go everywhere. Their plots are doglegged and do not care for the paltry shapes and meager occurrences of other people’s stories. 

First published in The New Yorker, and available to subscribers to read here; collected in All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Amistad, 2006

‘The Girl Who Raised Pigeons’ by Edward P. Jones

One of the reasons I love short stories is because they so often replace plot with relationships. This is the story of a relationship between a young girl, Betsy-Ann, and her dad, Robert, in Washington in the late 50s, early 60s. I’ve no idea how Jones manages to get so much into these pages: the social background of the changing neighbourhood; the desolation of a father – 19 years old – finding himself alone with a baby; Betsy Ann’s growing wilfulness; and a coop full of pigeons. There’s no showing off, and yet I found myself gasping several times at the sentences. He takes a zen-like care over each moment, and really earns the sentiments of the soaring final paragraph.

In Lost in the City, William Morrow, 1992

‘Marie’ by Edward P. Jones

Edward P. Jones’s collection Lost in the City sat unread on my shelves for years before I finally picked it up. I don’t know why it took me so long, particularly when I had heard so much praise for it from so many (American) writers. But maybe that’s why: praise fatigue. You can hear so much about a book that it comes to seem familiar to you, although of course when you read it you realise that whatever you have read about a book is never the same as reading the book for yourself; an obvious thing to say, but yet another thing I constantly forget (perhaps usefully, because the thought that there’s no replacement for reading a book grows proportionally more terrifying according to the size of your to-read pile).

Jones’s book is a kind of Dubliners for African American Washington D.C. between the 1950s and 1980s, and in that respect – and because the stories are brilliant – it is better to read them together rather than apart. I’ve chosen ‘Marie’, the final story in the collection, because its 86-year-old title character “had learned that life was all chaos and painful uncertainty”, and that line works as one of the main lessons taught by the entire collection. It hits you hard to read it because Jones gets inside his characters’ lives with such skill and power that your empathy is complete. Reading one story, ‘The Store’, I actually gasped when the narrator merely says that he shows up late for his job, because of the sense you have by that stage of the book that these lives have everything stacked against them, they are just barely holding together, and that something as minor as losing a job might send them off the rails forever.

From Lost in the City, William Morrow 1992. If you have a Paris Review subscription you can read Marie in full here (or in part if you don’t)