International Writers Magazine: Reviews: Fiction:
Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P Jones
the latest book of short stories put out by Pulitzer Prize winner
Edward P. Jones, All Aunt Hagar's Children, was a profound
disappointment because, unlike bad writers like Dave Eggers, T.C.
Boyle, David Foster Wallace, newcomers like Donald Ray Pollock,
or literary leeches like Thomas Steinbeck, Jones actually has (or
had) writing talent. His 1991 book of short stories, Lost In
The City, actually was a great piece of literature, with an
astounding nine of its fourteen stories reaching greatness (utterly
unheard of for published manuscripts).
Known World, his 2003 novel that actually won him the Pulitzer,
was merely a mediocrity- very overwritten and dull. In reading it I
wondered if this was a fluke, or was the earlier book a fluke? The answer,
if reading this collection is a guide, is that the first book was the
fluke. Not a single one of this book's fourteen tales broaches greatness,
even though a few tales here contain some crossover characters from
the first book of short stories. In fact, only one even story comes
near to being a solid to good tale. The rest are excruciatingly long
tales where nothing really happens, and not in the good sense, where
a character does nothing physically, but the reader experiences the
life of the mind of a witty or introspective character at a crucial
point in their plight. No, nothing happens in these tales because nothing
The plots are leaden, dull, the characters trite and uninteresting,
and the endings almost all verge on, or drench themselves in, cliché.
And whereas Lost In The City was taut and poetic, and even
The Known World had passages that stuck in the mind, the tales in
this latest collection smother a reader, turn them off from the first
or second paragraph, and make the reading a chore. If there are five
or six memorable sentences in the book's 399 pages I'd be shocked, almost
as shocked as I am at the a) incredible drying up of Jones' talent or
b) the incredible power that getting fat and sassy with recognition
can do to some people, if not out and out 'selling out.' By contrast,
Lost In The City came in at a crisp 243 pages, a figure which
only highlights the bloat this book, and his lauded novel, suffer from.
Jones simply trips up on his own labyrinthine effusiveness and fondness
Of course, Jones' downward trajectory in his three books is wholly unremarked
upon in the critical reception that his work gets, especially this last
book. In fact, the reviews all seem to be cribbed from each other. Doubt
me? Let me quote the summaries of some major and minor reviews- I won't
give the names of the reviewers nor their publications, but just Google
them and the crib notes are obvious:
Readers who enjoyed The Known World will relish these varied gems
of Jones' talent for storytelling.
With the legacy of slavery just a stone's throw away and the future
uncertain, Jones's cornucopia of characters will haunt readers for years
Avid readers of Edward P. Jones will definitely want to add this collection
to their libraries and will pick their favorites within All Aunt Hagar's
All Aunt Hagar's Children will add to Jones's reputation as a consummate
That, if for
no other reason, is why we will read Edward P. Jones's work: for that
Jones is such an incredibly gifted writer, his prose is succinct, true,
impeccably crafted. Reading his work is not only a pleasure but a privilege
Edward P. Jones has done it again with this sure-to-be classic.
He is compassionate and has written stories that ache with tragedy and
wistfulness. His characters are largely still lost, yet the collection
feels hopeful. They make you feel less alone, what all good fiction
The stories of All Aunt Hagar's Children, like all his previous work,
radiate decency, humanity and an abiding faith in human possibility.
Note the plethora of generic huzzahs and emotional buzzwords. This shows
that Jones is now officially part of the establishment for he gets his
ass kissed despite manifestly subpar work. When a book, or any work
of art, fails, the critic who is trying to avoid doing his job is sure
to fall back on one of these two crutches- genericism or emotionalism.
I focus on this because there is not much in the book to focus on; the
exact same reason the reviews all fall back on emotionalism and banalities.
Speaking of which, that master of banalities, Dave Eggers, wrote a review
of the book last year in the New York Times. Let me quote some
of the unwitting irony, as well as the utter predictability and emotional
Put side by side, "Lost in the City" and "All
Aunt Hagar's Children" are extraordinary works of empathy and imagination.
Though the first collection might be more consistent- it was short-listed
for a National Book Award, but it is still under-read- this one is equally
necessary for its occasional missteps. The title story, told from the
point of view of a young man charged with solving a murder, finds Jones
dabbling in noir, of all things, and the result is uneven. There is
timidity in "A Poor Guatemalan Dreams of a Downtown in Peru,"
a story about the prevalence of the supernatural in witnesses to great
disasters. Yet the collection manages to stun on every page; there are
too many breathtaking lines to count. If Jones has a weakness, it might
be that he longs too potently for the middle past, the period after
the northern migration of the children and grandchildren of "once-upon-a-time
slaves" and before life in the cities made the tether of community
more difficult to hold on to.
Note how Eggers dips into the generic praise even while faintly
damning: we get 'empathy and imagination,' and are told the first book
was better- which it is, although Jones amends that damning by stating
'the collection manages to stun on every page; there are too many breathtaking
lines to count.' Actually, not. By my count, 5 or 6, tops; if that.
So, unless Eggers has lost some digits, he is into full hyperbole now.
The criticisms are that one tale is 'uneven,' and the other has a 'timidity.'
What the hell kind of a criticism is a 'timidity'? The tale in question
is bad, but because it is dull and far too long. Eggers' other overall
criticism is 'that he longs too potently for the middle past, the period
after the northern migration of the children and grandchildren of "once-upon-a-time
slaves" and before life in the cities made the tether of community
more difficult to hold on to.'
Please note that the criticism is not really a criticism, but guised
as one, even though it really is just a description of Jones' tendency
and aims in the book. But, this paragraph is Eggers' firewall against
criticism of not a) actually reading the book and b) not having a clue
as how to write a piece of criticism that does not give the pretense
of negativity, here or there, or even equivocation.
But, enough with the fellatrics of bad critics, and on to the
In The Blink Of God's Eye follows a newly married couple
on their journey to Washington D.C, in the early 20th Century. And here
is the first sentence: 'That 1901 winter when the wife and her husband
were still new to Washington, there came to the wife like a scent carried
on the wind some word that wolves roamed the streets and roads of the
city after sundown.' Again, note that this sentence opens the book and
first tale, and it a) it lacks grammatically correct commas after 'wife'
and 'wind,' for it is a dependent clause (the first of a near endless
set of examples of anomic grammar employed by Jones), and b) two teeth-gnashing
clichés- go ahead, reader, I trust your intellect enough to let
you point them out. Here is how The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,
the first tale from Lost In The City opens: 'Her father would
say years later that she had dreamed that part of it, that she had never
gone out through the kitchen window at two or three in the morning to
visit the birds.'
Granted, the asides of 'years later' could be set off by commas, but
it's not as egregious an error as the lack of commas in the first sentence's
clause, but look at the dream set up, and how it sets one up for some
magical wonder, only to be rather pedestrian and real, yet something
not expected in the grandiose openings of most tales that begin referencing
a dream. Not a cliché in sight. And, unfortunately, the stark
differences between the two opening sentences of the two books is symptomatic
of the qualitative differences that widen as each book goes on.
The narrative finds the couple taking in a lost baby and having
their lives swiftly descend into the sort of melodrama Jones eschewed
in his earlier book. The whys and wherefores of the soap opera are not
even compelling enough to detail, but the main male character ends the
tale in this fashion: 'His heart was pained, and it was pain enough
to overwhelm a city of men.' Now, contrast that to the end of the aforementioned
first tale from Jones' first book: 'She did nothing, aside from following
him, with her eyes, with her heart, as far as she could.'
Forget the two narrative tropes of the two stories. Trust me when I
say that the earlier tale is far superior, and, if desirous of writing
a 50,000 word essay I could demonstrate it convincingly. But, just compare
these two sentences, with similar emotional situations, and even the
use of the word 'heart' in both. The first sentence is banal and maudlin,
as well as pitying toward the character. The sentence from the earlier
work is uplifting and empowering. Instead of the triteness of a heart
in pain, this sentence has a heart that is engaging the world in a synaesthetic
feat of sight. Again, these two sentences plainly illustrate the qualitative
differences of the two books, not to mention the second book's increased
Then there's Resurrecting Methuselah: this tale is bogged
down with long and pointless dialogue that does not evoke characterization,
but embodies stereotyping, and could condense several pages of it into
literally a sentence or two summary. The tale follows a World War Two
era couple separated by the war. She flies to Honolulu after learning
he has cancer. Naturally, he's an unfaithful husband. More melodrama
ensues and the wife finds a store that sells old fashioned candies.
She muses on what the future holds, but, because we are never given
more than a soap opera plot, and are bored to tears by the excessive
dialogue, this tale, rife with potential, falls flat, and ends like
an odorless fart.
The tale, Old Boys, Old Girls, is a tale with even more
potential than Resurrecting Methuselah, but fails even worse.
Jones is totally out of his element in trying to write a tale mostly
set in prison. The stereotypes and slang used are embarrassing, and
Jones shows his suburban background in this story which reads like a
five year old trying to write like Dostoevsky. The narrative follows
a loser through prison and release,. and is filled with bravado more
at home in a 1940s gangster film than a piece of supposedly realistic
fiction- Jones manifestly has never stepped foot in a prison nor spoken
with a con or ex-con. And if he has, then his tale is even worse for
that knowledge. The tale also epitomizes Jones' penchant for superfluous
details, as he, in this and all the tales, never seems content to let
a sentence stand where he can bloat it to a paragraph or two, and never
let a good paragraph suffice without riffing on for two or three more
The titular tale, All Aunt Hagar's Children, is no better.
Yes, it has a pretty good end, in comparison to the rest of the tales'
endings, but, like the rest of the tales, it lends no insight into the
characters. Its unneeded descriptions and dialogue prevent any real
slip into the characters' shoes. The tale is about a Korean War vet
who tries to unravel the death of an old family friend, and who also
seeks his fortune in Alaska. These are two elements that a better writer-
like the earlier Jones, could have made a compelling story out of, and
in half this tale's thirty pages. Alack, Jones seems to have lost that
ability. One good point is that the killer turns out not to be the usual
suspect- a white racist, but, other than that, these tales all seem
to lose any narrative grip on the reader after the first five pages.
The reading becomes a chore. But, this only makes one speed up, to spin
the wheels a bit faster, so the pain is dashed more quickly. Here's
an excruciating example of dialogue whose main essence could have been
trimmed to three sentences. Unless a character's showing unawareness
of themselves, is soliloquizing, or in a deeper argument, blasé
details like this are the proof that the writer is simply padding a
tale, for nothing here reveals character, only plot, and plot which
a few sentences could handle better:
"Miss Agatha's in pain," I said.
"We love Miss Aggie," Blondelle said. "So we wish
we could help, but we have nothin." She wore glasses, and it struck
me for the first time ever that she was pretty. How had I missed that?
The April day that Mary told me no, she took my hand and held it long
enough for me to know that there should be no hard feelings. Blondelle
walked away. Mary kissed my mouth. There was a pleasant smell I came
to associate with all colored women. If a man is to be rejected by a
woman, he should be rejected by a woman like Mary, for then he might
not be bitter about women. Blondelle was saying, "You know what
a devil Ike could be. You could accuse anybody in Washington."
She sighed. "You have a high mountain to climb. And even if you
do find the person, you gotta go back down that mountain and tell it
to Miss Aggie." She drank. "You been to where they killed
"Where he was killed? He lived downstairs from Miss Aggie.
The second-floor place."
"I ain't been there."
"They didn't teach you that in detective school?" Mary
said. Blondelle killed the Coke. "They never taught you to visit
the scene of the crime? You should use some a that mother wit you was
Blondelle said to Mary, "Oh, you know the private-dick people
don't like using mother wit. That would be too much like right."
No such conversations ever infected the speech patterns in Lost
In The City.
Jones tries to change tacks, a bit, in tales like A Poor Guatemalan
Dreams of A Downtown In Peru and Root Worker, employing minor
elements of 'magical realism,' but, as in most deployments of such,
the tack fails. This is because of the bloat that infects the book.
The former tale is thirty pages long and the latter forty. The former
is a Telemundo-level Mexican soap opera, while the latter deals with
rural blacks and beliefs in voodoo and other mystical hokum- a root
worker being the local term for medicine man. Neither compels the reader
in any way, despite the potential for each tale's syllabus. Perhaps
the best tale in the book, and one of the shortest, at twenty-four pages,
is Rich Man. It follows a retired Pentagon employee and his wife.
They are Senior Citizens who are at each others' throats and unfaithful
to each other. He more than she, but neither is portrayed as a particularly
likeable person. Their bickering is amusing, but only in a superficial
tv sitcom sort of way, like Sanford And Son or The Jeffersons.
The wife then dies, and the husband goes catting. Stretching credulity
to a breaking point, the seventysomething old man shacks up with a twentysomething
baby mama. She uses and abuses him, and the tale ends up with his apartment
in shambles. When everything has been lost, he looks around his apartment,
now wrecked, and sees the young gal, hears her baby's moans, and fumbles
through the pieces of his prized record collection. This could be a
devastating moment, save for the fact that there is no interior life
nor light given to any of the characters. Like so many of the other
characters in this book, they are de facto zombies. The husband is still
as clueless as he was at the tale's start. The last two tales
are Bad Neighbors and Tapestry. Neither is good and, like
all the rest of the tales, both are far too long and overwritten.
You may have noted that I have only briefly limned some of the
stories, but stated the book contained fourteen. That's because five
of the tales- Spanish In The Morning, Common Law, Adam Robinson Acquires
Grandparents And A Little Sister, The Devil Swims Across The Anacostia
River, and Blindsided, left no impression on my memory, due to banality,
dullness, or an assortment of the ills previously described, and a few
others not mentioned. Yes, I took notes of all the tales, and Post-ited
them, but decided to not even waste the effort describing them since
their titles produced no recall, just a few days after reading them.
That alone says all one needs to know of their quality, or lack. And,
contrary to what a hack like Dave Eggers writes, there is not a stunning
moment in the book, nor 'too many breathtaking lines to count.' I dare
you to find one of either. Lost In The City was brimming with
them, even in the lesser stories. By contrast, All Aunt Hagar's Children
is virtually void of poesy, and larded with meaningless details and
dialogue, not to mention meandering grammar. Its twin descents into
turgidity and turbidity are alarming because they are the flowering
of tendencies that The Known World first exhibited, and evidences a
self-satisfaction and disregard for the reader, rather than a continual
striving toward clear and effectively deep communication of ideas and
characters. Whether Jones 'lost it' or is 'coasting,' the end result
is the same, a work of fiction that is neither lean nor mean, and not
only fails to match his earlier short fiction effort, but an overall
failure as a stand-alone work; a book on par with the best of Joyce
Carol Oates, but coming from someone who once touched greatness, it
is a thick stew without flavor. Worse, All Aunt Hagar's Children
is a disgrace to its writer and his audience.
© Dan Schneider July 2008
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King's Refrigerator, & Other Stories, by Charles Johnson
American novelist Charles Johnson has published three collections of
short stories... this third collection, released by Scribner's in 2005,
is by far the weakest.
Ellen Gilchrist's Collected
Dan Schneider review
Having read Thom Jones' Sonny Liston Was A Friend Of Mine
and overdosing on its phallic ejaculations I turned to the Collected
Stories of Ellen Gilchrist for a change.
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