January 7: “Young Lions” by Edward P. Jones

For today’s post, I’m going further back than I’ve gone so far, to a book released in 1992, Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones; the story might be even older, but the acknowledgements don’t list it as previously published, though other pieces in the book are from the early eighties. Anyway, it’s interesting to think about what I was doing in 1992. The first half of that year was spent bombing out of an engineering program in Champaign, not my favorite time, but at the same time, that was the exact point I started writing stories. Most of that school year was spent on artistic pursuits—if mix tapes and intricately rendered covers for them can be considered “pursuits”—not pulling my hair out over calculus or chemistry. I was destined to make stuff up—engineers hate that—and used my class lecture time to draft little tales to amuse the guys I hung around with from my dorm. At some point I wondered if I could I could do something like that, as in for a living, and when the engineers asked I not come back in the fall, I figured, why not?

I started writing stories, sure, but I wasn’t reading many stories, especially not brand-new ones. Short stories at that juncture fell into two categories: 1) stories I wrote, and 2) stories in Norton anthologies from high school.  It was either me writing my first story, about a guy who ate speaker wire (this guy next door to me brought a giant spool of speaker wire to school, the kind of spool that served as a table and a speaker wire spool, and we all wondered why anyone needed that much speaker wire), or Stephen Crane, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. As far as I knew, I was the first person to write anything since the fifties (I wasn’t, I found out later).

So when Jones’ Lost in the City came out, a smart burgeoning writer would have picked it up, studied it, said, “So, this is what’s going down now, huh?” It was the author’s first book and was immediately lauded, becoming a National Book Award Finalist and being reviewed in every review venue from The Times to … were there other book review venues? By fall, I was taking a creative writing class at the community college back home, reading stories from an anthology—stories still written before I was born—unaware of Jones or any other living writer, save Stephen King, whom I didn’t read, either.

Looking back now, I regard 1992 as one of those in-between years in contemporary literature. Raymond Carver—a named I still hadn’t heard—was gone for five years, and absurdists/fabulists like George Saunders and Aimee Bender were still a little way’s off. The world was recovering from minimalism, but had not yet moved on to the type of work that so directly influenced me. Edward P. Jones debuted in that Bermuda Triangle of styles, at least to my limited consciousness.

I’ve read stories in this collection at different times, as it’s a book that had been on my nightstand for a while. I’d never gotten that deep into it, though. While I’ve admired the intensity and honesty of Jones’ style, I’d lost track of the collection and found it in a pile since undergoing this project. I had read Jones’ novel, The Known World, when it’d come out, as it won the Pulitzer and I’ve read the Pulitzer winners going back to the eighties. I liked The Known World quite a bit, which made me buy both of Jones’ other books, Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children, both collections. For me, that’s odd, to have only touched on a writer’s stories but to have read his novel. That’s my Edward P. Jones experience.

The story I’ve chosen for today, “Young Lions,” was an arbitrary choice. “Young Lions” stood out as it shares a title with a good Marlon Brando movie (Brando plays a Nazi officer), and that’s as good a reason as any to randomly pick a story. Unlike my post on “Bobcat” by Rebecca Lee a couple of days ago, I was not thinking this story would be from the point of view of an animal, but it’s fun to imagine now, a first-plural effort from some lion cubs. Or not.

“Young Lions” is an intense story, from beginning to end. It depicts a pretty average sequence of days in the life of Caesar Matthews, a professional criminal. Caesar’s a small-time hood, muggings mostly, though taking down a convenience store once in a while. He carries a gun wherever he goes, ever since he first held one in his hand. He has relationships, with women, with partners, with father figures, but doesn’t seem to like anyone, not even the woman he lives with, Carol. He cares either the most or the least for her, a woman who leaves notes for him, every day, telling him she loves him. Caesar barely responds. Jones, in backstory sequences, reveals why his hero is so distant, but Caesar’s only twenty-four: No reason for him to be stuck in his ways yet, other than he wants to be stuck. That’s just the type of protagonist Caesar is, a pure bad guy, hard to like, even though a lot of people try. Like Tony Soprano or Walter White or any contemporary anti-hero, Caesar’s disconnect and ruthlessness make the story compelling and unpredictable at every turn. As noted, intense.

The story is broken up with these passages of backstory, the frontstory somewhat of a mystery until the climax. Caesar has his eyes on a different type of score … or does he? He engages in a MacGuffinesque pursuit from beginning to end, his motives never clear. What’s he up to? While we learn about who Caesar is, why he is that way, this ongoing pursuit is what moves the story forward, gives it an arc. How it, and his relationship with Carol, resolves itself is what makes this such a great story, what defines Caesar as a person, as a character.

One theme that recurs in the story is nudity. The story begins with Caesar standing in front of his fridge, the door open, him drinking milk in the nude. A key scene with Carol mid-story features her continuously naked, and at one point, Caesar makes an allusion to his father being naked as well. In literature, nudity represents vulnerability, and I think that’s what Jones is getting at here, and once I noticed the pattern, I saw what Jones was doing with these moments, versus the moments these characters were in clothes. Caesar’s nudity is empowering, he, king of his abode, nude and drinking milk from the carton. Carol, not so much. It’s a subtle touch, but Jones is one of his generation’s great writers. His work is filled with touches like this, and they add up to something greater all the time.

Edward P. Jones hasn’t published a book since All Aunt Hagar’s Children in 2006. Hopefully, he’s got something cooking. I couldn’t find anything about forthcoming books in a brief web search, but we can hope. Still lots of stories for me to read until then.

Edward P. Jones