introducing readers to writers since 1995

February 08, 2005

Who, What, Y...

by Ron Hogan

It's been a while since I've been to the 92nd Street Y for a reading, but there was no way I was going to miss an appearance by Edward P. Jones. Hilton Als's introduction stressed how little he (or any of us) knows about Jones's life beyond his stories, and rejecting comparisons of Jones to writers such as Toni Morrison or William Faulkner: "His work is unplaceable, unaccountable, and his own." Jones came out and read a chapter from The Known World in which a widow worries that her slave, her only companion for the last several years, is going to get rebellious and start grinding up glass and putting it into her food. It sounds grim, but there's a lot of funny passages...and funny in a way that emerges naturally from the situation, not played forcibly for laughs. The mixture of humor and poignancy continued into "Blindsided," a short story about a woman on a D.C. bus who suddenly loses her vision and tries to figure out what's wrong with her and get back to her apartment.

Next, former Philadelphia Daily News editor Gil Spencer introduced his former columnist, Pete Dexter, who then came out and told some stories on Spencer before launching into an anecdote about how he had recently bought an airplane and he hadn't told his wife, and he hadn't figured out how he was going to tell her, until he decided to use a Howdy Doody puppet his sister-in-law had given him for Christmas, except that "call me insensitive, but after 26 years of marriage, I didn't know how she feels about puppets. Turns out she's afraid of them." And then, although I was expecting a passage from his new paperback, Train, instead he read a lengthy excerpt from what appears to be a semi-autobiographical novel in process about a...well, not quite a schlemiel, because it's not that the guy's incompetent, it's just that stuff keeps happening to him. I'm sure you know the type of character I mean: the 20th-century down-and-out American male unto whom life just keeps dumping a string of misfortune, most of which is rooted somehow in his own psychological or social limitations, with much dark humor ensuing. The material was funny enough, especially the part where his car catches fire as the repo man tries to tow it away, but it went on a little long, and so I ended up bailing on the Q&A, although as I was walking out the door, I did hear Jones comment on the relationship of his novel to history: "Well, there's a state called Virginia, and a country called the United States. Those parts are real."

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