Face it. We critics–whether print, blogging, or armchair–can report our high opinion a book or film, sing its praises, trot out the evidence by sentence or scene…but for the most part, trying to predict its posterity is sheer guesswork and a fool’s errand. What will the next generation or five think of the movies we’ve cooed over, the books whose spines we’ve most lovingly split? Quite possibly, they won’t think of them at all, so if we have an ounce of sense we steer clear of prognosticating and stick to the present tense.
But. Once in a while, something makes you want to go out on the limb that is the future tense. I’ve reviewed many perfectly wonderful novels over the years, and I’ve fallen in love more than once or twice or ten times. But I’ve never had quite the feeling I had nearing the end of Edward P. Jones’s new story collection, All Aunt Hagar’s Children: the feeling that this is no-doubt-about-it great and will be read for a very long time. I wrote about why on last weekend’s Baltimore Sun book page:
The fourteen stories collected in Edward P. Jones’ extraordinary All Aunt Hagar’s Children traverse the length of the 20th century as it was experienced in black neighborhoods in and around Washington. Many of the characters that populate these stories have recently migrated to the capital and stand divided between meeting the demands of their urban setting and maintaining the customs and values that shaped their former lives in the deep South.
As the century wears on, the latter increasingly slip away: “None of them knew,” reflects one character in the final story, “that the cohesion born and nurtured in the South would be but memory in less than two generations.” As those bonds slip into memory, many of the characters work their way up the socioeconomic ladder. Most of them keep steadfast to a homespun Christian faith that colors their apprehension of all the world’s workings as well as their own actions. And all of them surprise and surprise us, simply by being who they are. The strength of Jones’ work is concentrated in his characters, vital and unruly beings all. It isn’t just that these are psychologically acute portraits; each of them is a willful force in motion. I can’t remember when I last met fictional characters as autonomously alive as those who live in this book…
Read the rest here. As readers of The Known World have suspected and this book confirms as far as I’m concerned, Jones is the real, real thing. To give you a taste, here’s a paragraph from the wonderful final story, “Tapestry,” about the beginning of a courtship:
The rains did not let up and the train to take the cousin and George to Jackson could not make its way to Picayune. Anne saw him every day that week, the two sitting on the porch in the late afternoon and evening. By Tuesday he knew his way on his own to her place, and by Thursday, unlike the other days, a tad of her was looking forward to seeing him in the borrowed field work clothes, coming along the road from the left full of purpose and then stepping over the dog and his two duck companions lying in the mud at the entrance to her place. She didn’t stand on the porch with her arms around the post, the way she had months and months ago, before Lucas Turner told her she was not as beautiful as she thought she was. More than anything, being with George gave her something to do with her afternoon and evening time. “The heart can be cruel, the heart can be wicked, the heart can give joy,” Anne was to tell her grandson and the recording machine years later, “but it is always an instrument we can never understand.” Neddy had already wandered over to Clarice’s way. Lucas Turner’s mother had asked him that Wednesday why he wasn’t putting down time with Anne, and he told her what his heart had told him that morning when he woke at four: “We ain’t twirlin like that anymore.”
An amazing and essential book.