Lost in the City

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Edward P. Jones has written fourteen stories about life in the nation’s capital. His characters are all lost in the city, in one way or another. The central character in the title story chooses to be lost; a successful lawyer, she tries to escape her past when she learns that her mother has died. Starting out to go to the hospital for a final farewell, she tells the ancient cab driver to get lost in the city, and he tries. Most of the other characters, from the young girl whose pigeon roost is ravaged by rats to the old woman fearing the loss of her Social Security benefits, are lost through fate rather than choice.

Jones’s approach to these characters is carefully neutral. All but two of the narratives are presented by an omniscient observer who neither praises nor condemns. The mother who uses cocaine, excuses her older son’s dealing and lives with a succession of men is not condemned; when her son shoots and kills her godson over failure to pay for drugs, she unlocks the doors to her apartment so the fugitive son will be able to come home. She is presented no less sympathetically than the old woman who has trouble at the Social Security office. Called in for a routine check, she never gets to see a counselor despite making several visits to the office. Finally, in total frustration, she slaps the receptionist who has treated her scornfully, and from then on lives in fear that she will lose her benefits.

Many of the stories are grim, but there are elements of humor in some and a warm humanity among many of the characters that somehow pierces the rather flat narrative style of Jones’s prose. Some of the longer stories digress too often before coming to the point, but on the whole these are affecting and powerful stories. The photographs by Amos Chan which accompany the stories accurately reflect the realities of life for these characters.

Sources for Further Study

Kirkus Reviews. LX, April 1, 1992, p. 418.

Library Journal. CXVII, May 15, 1992, p. 122.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 12, 1992, p. 6.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, August 23, 1992, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, March 23, 1992, p. 59.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, June 21, 1992, p. 3.

Washington Times. July 29, 1992, p. E2.

Lost in the City

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

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The Stories

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The fourteen stories in Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City are patterned loosely after James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). They concern people of various ages who face the challenges of growing up, surviving, and succeeding in African American neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. The collection begins with two young girls dealing with death. In the first story, a girl whose mother died in childbirth wants to raise pigeons on the roof. Although her father tries to protect her from knowledge of death by checking on the pigeons each morning before she gets up to see if any have died, one morning he finds many of them have been killed by rats, and he must wring the necks of the wounded ones. The second story, “The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was Killed,” focuses on Cassandra Lewis, a high school girl whom boys call “the tank” because she is so large. The title character, a friend of Cassandra, is supposed to sign a contract with a record company on the day the story takes place, but she is shot by the father of her baby.

Some of Jones’s stories are brief, lyrical pieces in which characters face loneliness and loss. For example, in “Lost in the City,” Lydia Walsh, while at a hotel with a man, receives a call that her mother has died in the hospital. She snorts a line of cocaine and calls a cab, telling the driver to get her lost in the city so she can postpone accepting her mother’s death. In “An Orange Line Train to Ballston,” a...

(The entire section is 478 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Jones, Edward P. “An Interview with Edward P. Jones.” Interview by Lawrence P. Jackson. African American Review 34, no. 1 (Spring, 2000): 95-104. Jones talks about the writers who influenced and taught him, the development of the stories in Lost in the City, and his creation of the cultural world of African American neighborhoods in Washington, D.C.

Kennedy, J. Gerald, and Robert Beuka. “Imperiled Communities in Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City and Dagoberto Gilb’s The Magic of Blood.” The Yearbook of English Studies 31 (2001): 10-23. Argues that Lost in the City constructs from disparate stories a unified narrative about the loneliness and isolation of the African American community.

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Dignity Survives amid Grimness of an Inner City.” Review of Lost in the City, by Edward P. Jones. The New York Times, June 11, 1992, section C, p. 18. In this influential appreciative review, Lehmann-Haupt says that Jones consistently dignifies his characters, presenting as proud and without self-pity people who are down and out, but who lead rich and varied lives.

Mason, Myatt. “Ballad for Americans.” Harper’s Magazine 313, no. 1876 (September, 2006): 87-92. Compares Jones’s stories to those of James Joyce because of their meticulous style, but argues that whereas Joyce is unforgiving of his characters’ limitations, Jones demands readers’ compassion.

Yardley, Jonathan. “On the Streets Where We Live.” The Washington Post, June 21, 1992, p. X3. Argues that although Jones writes about African Americans, it is more accurate to say that he writes about people who merely happen to be African American.