Lydia Walsh, the affluent lawyer who is the central figure in the story that gives this collection its title, is actively trying to get lost in the city. Awakened from a sound sleep by a call from a hospital informing her that her mother has died, she sets off to the hospital to say a final goodbye to her mother. Several lines of cocaine and a general dissatisfaction with her life, however, distract her and lead her to instruct an ancient cab driver to lose her in the city. She seems to have lost all respect for herself and deliberately courts anonymity, forgetting her dead mother. At the end, however, the mother’s memory returns, unbidden.
Lydia Walsh is a rarity in Edward P Jones’s first book. Most of the characters who populate the other thirteen stories in Lost in the City are somehow lost without wishing to be. They range from children to retirees. A few of them are criminals, a few are relatively well off, a few are poverty stricken; for most of them, life is a struggle. The picture Jones paints of life for the black residents of Washington, D.C., is grim but not unrelievedly so. There are moments of enlightenment or joy for at least a few of them.
It is not always clear what kind of response the author intends to evoke with his narratives. With two exceptions, the stories are told by an omniscient narrator whose style is straightforward and unadorned and whose attitude toward the characters and events he describes is carefully neutral. The narrator shows no more (and no less) sympathy for an old woman frightened of losing her Social Security allotments than he does for the woman who hates her well-intentioned father. There is no overt condemnation of any of the characters, not even the young man who forces his girlfriend to carry out his plan to steal money from a mentally disabled woman. On the other hand, there is no special approval given to people who do not permit the circumstances of life to defeat them.
The two exceptions to Jones’s standard method of narration are stories about young people. “The First Day” is a brief first-person narrative about a child whose mother enrolls him in a kindergarten. They are turned away at what the neighborhood regards as the best school in the area, and the child is enrolled in another school. It is an undramatic story in which the child has his first experience of loss when his mother leaves him at the end. The focus is on the mother, who, illiterate herself, is determined that her child will have a better chance in life than she had.
The other first-person narrator is the central figure in a long story, “The Store.” The events cover a period of seven years in the life of the anonymous young man. He leaves a dead-end job, fails to find other work, and finally responds to an ad for help in a mom-and-pop grocery store owned by Penny Jenkins, a widow. After a rough start, the two begin to get along. The young man is given more and more responsibility and a string of small salary increases. He also forms a long-term relationship with Kentucky Connors, a beautiful woman who comes into the store occasionally. Eventually Penny turns most of the responsibility for the store over to the narrator. The idyll ends, but the narrator is able to look back on the experience with pleasure.
This relatively happy ending is a rarity among these stories. Jones, or his editors, has given a kind of form to the book by having as the central figures in the individual stories increasingly old characters. The early stories are about children and verge on the sentimental; the final stories are about very old people. In between are narratives about adults. These stories are the hardest, providing few endings that could in any way be called happy.
“The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed” sets the tone of the earlier part of Lost in the City. Cassandra G. Lewis, the central figure in the story, is a girl who sporadically attends high school but who finds what hope there is in her life in the prospect that her friend Rhonda Ferguson will become a major recording artist. On the day described, Rhonda and her father go downtown to sign a contract while Cassandra and three other young women of her age ride around in an old car belonging to Cassandra’s brother-in-law. They carry out an errand to deliver some boxes to Anacostia; there are arguments among the young women, chiefly between Cassandra and the talkative Melanie. Peace finally is restored when Anita, another of Cassandra’s friends, begins to sing. After a series of adventures, they find that Rhondn has been shot and killed by Jeffrey, the father of her infant daughter. Cassandra, in shock, is taken home by Anita. She is put to bed, still not really comprehending what has happened. Anita’s singing provides a kind of solace for Cassandra.
“The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed” is representative of Jones’s technique in several ways. The story is filled with details of the lives of...