This is a well-written collection, comprised of 14 stories about the lives of African-American characters living in Washington, D.C. I read it in large part because several years ago I was extremely impressed with Jones’s novel, The Known World. This was the author’s first book and though imperfect, it also shows a strong literary style.
These stories follow the lives of ordinary people, though there is a pervasive sense of loss, and domestic violence and tragedy are common occurrences. Though the stories aren’t specifically about growing up, they are arranged roughly according to the age of the protagonist. The first story, “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons,” is about a child in a dying neighborhood who keeps a pigeon coop on the roof. A little further on are “Young Lions” and “The Store,” two stories about young men (exceptions in a collection featuring mostly female protagonists) – each of whom finds identity and purpose in his work, one as a thug and the other as a store manager. Passing the halfway point, we get “His Mother’s House,” in which a woman gradually becomes complicit in her son’s drug business. And we end with “Marie,” a story about an 86-year-old woman dealing with bureaucracy, the death of an acquaintance and her own memories.
Occasionally characters recur – secondary characters from “The Night Rhonda Ferguson was Killed” appear in at least three other tales – but for the most part the stories are self-contained. The structures are fairly traditional, with all but two stories told in the third person, mostly in chronological order, and with few surprises. Jones does not rely on suspense or plot twists to keep readers’ attention, but rather on believable characters, good writing and attention to detail.
My reservation about this collection is that the endings are poor. Unlike a novel, in which the journey is more important than the destination, it’s my opinion that a short story’s power depends on its ending. Several of these stories are slices of life: they feature situations – interesting situations that are worth writing about – but not plots. For instance, in “A Butterfly on F Street,” a woman crossing the street has to wait in the median beside the woman for whom her recently-deceased husband left her. The other woman initiates a polite conversation, and the story ends with the protagonist standing alone in the median, overwhelmed by emotion. Has anything changed for her? What exactly was the point of this story? The shorter stories in particular often left me asking these questions. Others have complete plot arcs, but their last paragraphs are consistently their weakest.
That said, this is good literature, and the stories fit together well; though set in a small and precise geographical area, they never become repetitive, and they cover similar themes in different ways. I am interested in reading Jones’s other short story collection, and not only to see if the endings improve!