Edward P. Jones writes as God might, were He to publish fiction. Specifically, Jones mobilizes a relatively unusual verb tense to embed the future in the past, making every incident in his characters’ lives simultaneously present to the stories’ omniscient narrator–cum–celestial census taker. Patches’ Creek belongs to a woman who “fancied herself the richest Negro in Miss- issippi” but “would die not knowing there were five undertakers and one insurance company founder who were richer”; the battered but intact female protagonist of “Common Law” “was one and a half years from marrying Alvin Deloach,” “more than eight years from marrying Vaughn Anderson,” “just about thirty years from seeing her first grandchild come into the world,” and “more than forty and a half years from death.” Jones has said of his 2003 novel The Known World that he carried it around in his head for 10 years, and the stories in Aunt Hagar’s Children feel not so much composed as discovered.
The characters and settings echo those of Jones’s first collection, Lost in the City (1992), the title story of which ends with a rumor that crops up here in “Root Worker,” whose main character (greatly afflicted by her mother’s psychosis) gets into her first fight at 11, with a girl who tells her she can get $25 if she calls St. Elizabeths: The D.C. psychiatric hospital supposedly gives that amount “in brand-new bills for every insane person that was turned in.” Both this story and “A Poor Guatemalan Dreams of a Downtown in Peru” evoke the mysteries of folk wisdom eroded by the amnesia of forced migrations and city living. But the recompense for sorrow includes the humanity of the characters as well as vivid and often very funny details, like the habit (it belongs to a minor character called Frisky Fred) of going “to Baltimore, sometimes even to Philadelphia, to have his hair processed so he could come back and tell people in D.C. that the process was his own natural good hair.”
The title piece, narrated in the first person by an unwilling detective who’s investigating the murder of his mother’s friend’s no-good son, circles around a second death as well, that of a Jewish woman who died in the narrator’s arms, after collapsing in front of a streetcar, with these last words: “A moll is gav vain ah rav und ah rabbit sin. . . . Zetcha kender lock gadank za tira vos ear lair rent doe.” Identifying the murderer gives the protagonist less satisfaction than decoding the message, after his employer’s wife hears him reciting the words to himself like a mantra and begins to weep. They are her Yiddish-speaking father’s words, she tells him, “his way of beginning stories”: “ Once upon a time there was a rabbi and his wife. . . . Listen, children, remember, precious ones, what you’re learning here.” That could be the motto of this remarkable collection.