Edward P. Jones makes Washington, D.C. sound like an awfully violent city. And while the physical violence in his debut short story collection Lost in the City (Morrow, 1992) looms large -- the drug-related shooting in "His Mother's House, the petty crime of "Young Lions" -- the more understated moments of violence have the most resonance. The romantic yearning of the single mother in "An Orange Line Train to Ballston" explodes in a moment of almost unbearable harshness onto one of her children. It's a moment that feels so true and so compelling -- violence as an almost a natural consequence of passion.
Jones excels at creating a sense of place. He evokes the city and its peculiarities effortlessly, whether speculating the flashing lights in the Metro stations or recreating 'Cleopatra's Wig Shop' seemingly from memory. Certainly, he showcases a side of D.C. which most people would consider as strange waypoints on the Metro line. Equally at ease with Anacostia, Shaw and Northwest, Jones unveils these neighborhoods with intimate knowledge. And yet, as the characters traverse from one part of the city to the next, they reveal themselves as much as the city itself. In the title story, a young woman takes a cab ride, with each avenue and street bringing forth a new memory -- a mental journey moreso than a physical one. Indeed, each story is accompanied by a grainy black-and-white photograph that helps ground the reader in the place even more.
Most of these stories are told in the limited 3rd-person. One of the two stories in the first person, "The First Day," has become anthologized widely, for good reason. It seems like a small tale -- a girl's first day of school -- but Jones adds layers (illiteracy, aspirations, wounded pride) onto the story, until the cumulative emotional effect packs a wallop. The other first-person narration, "The Store," takes a long view; whereas most of the stories here take place within the length of a day or less, "The Store" follows a young man's affiliation with a story, first as an employee, then as a nominative manager.
Jones would later win the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Known World, but Lost in the City takes the political center of the free world -- just a few square miles, really -- and opens up its soul, street by street.