Post Road Magazine #19

Getting LOST IN THE CITY with Edward P. Jones

Jennine Capó Crucet

There are so many things not just to admire, but to envy, drool over, adore, and—if you're slick—straight-up swipe from Lost in the City that it's hard for me to decide where to start. So I won't (that is: decide), and instead, I'll tell you the following true story.

But first, and in a total rip-off of EPJ's technique of front-loading a narrative with deceptively irrelevant yet crucial information, some context: when I'm not writing, I work full time as a counselor to high school kids in South Central Los Angeles. Mostly, I help them get into (and then stay in) out-of-state colleges. These kids all come from low-income families, and most will be the first in their family to go to college. Many of them have told me that they are worried about the first moment they tell their future college friends that they are from Los Angeles. "Why is that?" I ask, half knowing the answer (I'm from Miami; I know what this moment feels like). "When you say LA, people think Hollywood," they tell me. "South LA is not Hollywood. But it's also not Hollywood's version of South LA, you know?" This is when I ask them, seemingly out of the blue, what they know about another city, Washington DC. They say: Oh, DC? The White House, Congress, important museums and stuff. Some mention a Close-Up trip and feeling inspired by the Lincoln Memorial ("or someplace"). Some say they once watched a video about the Million Man March, or read about some immigration rally on the Mall. It is at this point—the popular images of DC having each had their turn—that I take out from my bag one of the three copies of Lost in the City that I own and slide it across the table.

As I watch them flip through the stories ("What, are these like, chapters?"), I don't tell them about the time I got to interview Edward P. Jones, not because I hide my double life as a writer from them (I don't— and since my fiction is sans-vampires, they are not, at the moment, impressed), but because the night of that interview stands as one of the most horrendous evenings of my adult life. The interview took place, despite my protests, at an Applebee's (A Neighborhood Bar & Grill). This probably accounts for fifty percent of why the night was so brutal. I take full responsibility for the other fifty percent. I had never interviewed anyone before that, and I was in no position to be conducting this interview, which is to say, I was way, way too excited to be interviewing Edward P. Jones. I'd read LITC in its entirety at least four times by that point, and some of the stories—like "The Girl Who Raised Pigeons," "The Store," (and especially) "A New Man"—I'd read a dozen times and dis- sected every which way. Well before knowing about the possibility of the interview, I'd declared myself president of his fan club. In an act of extreme stupidity and caffeine-induced bravado, I'd offered, while he signed my book at his reading the day before the interview, to bear him a child if he ever became desperate to reproduce. (Dear God, how I wish this was an exaggeration.) Such was my devotion to this man, to his first book of stories. I'd prepared dozens of questions that would, I was certain, prove to him my said devotion and make him declare me his instant BFF, and that that declaration would somehow make me as spectacular a writer—as masterful a storyteller—as him.

Each story in Lost in the City, no matter which character it focuses on, gives a sense of a vast world—of a vibrant community with voices calling out from otherwise ignored corners. We always say, without really thinking about the power implied, that the third person omniscient is the "God" point of view. In Lost in the City, EPJ knows how to exploit this point of view so much so that it's like he invented it. Here is a guarantee: you will read this book and then you'll try to do it—to write a story where you really are its God—and when you hit forty pages (knowing full well that it should not be that long), you'll look back at the paragraphs in the book that you've circled and underlined and pointed several arrows towards and admit, like me, that you are in the presence of a literary deity. You will bow down and become a disciple.

I will not get into much more about that ill-fated interview except to say that EPJ ordered nothing but a glass of ice water (Me: "No! Order whatever, I'm getting reimbursed!" and later, "Please, at least get something. Get a milkshake.") and felt more at ease talking about his extensive stamp collection than about any of the issues raised in my sycophantic and overly rehearsed questions. What I will say is that in the years since that night, Lost in the City has become one of what I call my barometer books–books that I reread every six months or so to remind myself how good and important literature could and should be. Rereading LITC reminds me what it feels like to absolutely love a book on so many levels: as a reader, as a writer, as a Cuban woman from a city better known for its nightlife (and as the host of the second season of Jersey Shore) than for the spirited community that raised me, one very much worthy of having its stories told. So I push this book on anyone who asks me for a reading suggestion for any of a dozen reasons. From a craft perspective: a story titled "The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed" does not even mention Rhonda Ferguson's name until page three–this takes some writerly cojones. Narrative voice and its poetic potential: in "The Store," an old man is described as "so bald you could read his thoughts" (as a former slinger of yo-mama jokes, I cannot help but love this), and much later, there is a bold, glorious sentence listing about thirty-two items, each one the bud of a new story all its own, that "the world comes to buy." From a practical perspective: this is a book I can hand to a South Central LA high school student about to set off into the world, one about to learn what it means to be from a Somewhere that people, despite having never visited, are convinced they've already figured out. And when my advisees tell me, a week later, that they never knew that the DC in Lost in the City even existed, I say, "Exactly." I tell them, This is what we—writers or not—do to be understood: we cast as new our old stories, the ones we know too well, and somehow, we find ourselves in the telling.

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