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LOST IN THE CITY.Edward P. Jones.Morrow.288 pages....



Edward P. Jones.


288 pages. $19. To the list of America's fine short-story writers, add the name of Edward P. Jones. This first collection, recently nominated for the National Book Award, would merit praise whenever it appeared, but especially now, when whites and blacks need more than ever to believe in each other's humanity. These 14 stories of African-American life in Washington, affirm that humanity as only good literature can.

There's no secret to it, or only the final, most elusive secret: Mr. Jones has near-perfect pitch for people. A motherless girl who raises pigeons, old women stirred by a lightning storm to remember the dark rural past, a boy whose demanding lady boss at a grocery store becomes his best friend, a man who finds a new lifestyle knocking on strangers' doors in search of his runaway daughter, a woman whose father, imprisoned 25 years for killing her mother, wants to get back into her life -- whoever they are, he reveals them from the inside out.

His skill rewards him -- and us -- with moments that transcend these stories' sturdy realism. An Ivy League-educated lawyer is so shaken by her mother's death that she climbs into a taxi and tells the driver to go anywhere, and everywhere they go she sees the humble landmarks of her childhood. A Navy veteran tells his bride: "We're never gonna believe in anything but right now. Not very much of tomorrow. Maybe a little of the tomorrow mornin' but no farther than that." A much-married gospel singer drives through a snowstorm in hopes of finding a stranger she glimpsed tipping his hat, "a respectful gesture out of a country time . . . when a little girl would watch dark young men as tall as trees stand respectfully close to young women. . . . Where had all such men gone?"

House painter Truman Smith denies that he is a private investigator. But he does have that reputation, and people from Galveston keep calling. Fred Benton not only knows about Tru's fame but also has a problem. Someone killed an alligator on his land, and Fred's dog mysteriously died -- and there have been strange noises on his land at night.

Fred needs an investigator. Tru reluctantly agrees to check around for some answers. When an attempt is made on Truman's life and a double murder follows, he realizes he is in the middle of something very sinister. There are plenty of suspects and quite a few motives. Tru has everything but the cooperation of the law and answers.

One of the nice aspects of mystery literature is the regionalism found in so many works, and Bill Crider's "Gator Kill" provides a fascinating glimpse at life in Texas. Mr. Crider has also infused "Gator Kill" with an interesting plot, colorful characters, some graphic violence and a satisfying denouement. Truman Smith is an unusual detective in that he manages to understand the darker side of human nature and yet avoid cynicism. "Gator Kill" is the second in the Truman Smith series; it will be nice to meet him again.

"It's more interesting, and makes for better writing," Clyde Edgerton once observed, "to let your characters grow into real fictional people rather than . . . writing about real people."

"In Memory of Junior," Mr. Edgerton's latest novel, provides irrefutable proof of his point. He is a master storyteller. He has a poet's ear for language, an artist's eye for suggestive details, and a joyous sense of humor. His fiction blends these with a supreme respect for the craft of writing.

The plot of "In Memory . . ." takes a funny/serious look at the way love, betrayal, and money make or do not make character. The story is told through the voices of the Bales and McCords of Summerlin, N.C., as they wait to inherit the homestead. Who inherits what depends on whether the aged and frail Laura or her husband, Glenn, dies first. The book opens as each approaches death.

Mixing farce with the sad and sometimes bitter feelings between family members, the novel is an offbeat, exceedingly tender love story. As Glenn, remembering his wife who left him 50 years ago, put it: "I hate her . . . and I realize that the hate is piled up on the love . . ."


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