The Known World by Edward P. Jones is, for the most part, too plodding and serious a book. Maybe that is too harsh criticism: the character’s suffering is worthy and deeply felt, and there is enough life to give the book a spark. But it’s slow in that contemporaneous literary way, and it was released in paperback (one year, two years after its first print?) with a selection of stodgily researched “facts” and tepid questions for the book club set, already hinting that, as a work, it is “major”. Jones is an excellent writer, but the book fails partly because it knows its audience too well; it is too finely marketed.
One and a half years later I can pick out many moments, but I cannot give you an accurate summary of the plot. It is probably impossible to resolve the idea of slavery, and Jones gives a good account of it, but the book feels incomplete. Perhaps it is only that I wish the book Jones had written were another, one that he hints at very briefly, in a single chapter.
A powerful white man loses his family to sickness and his estate to creditors. He is ruined, and sets his manor on fire. It burns to the ground. For a time the property is abandoned.
The crops would escape the fire and would thrive, tended by no one. The fields had not had such bounty in more than seven years. There would be no harvest in the usual sense, as no one came to reap what the slaves had sown. Had someone counted up what the crops the fields had to give, it would have come to more than $325 a slave.
The man is totally humbled:
Counsel left that second day, heavy with all the sorrow he would ever know, and went west and then south, avoiding all human beings as best he could. He did not care, but it occurred to him in South Carolina that what he had done was a crime, since much of what he had belonged to others. He continued on, aimless, saddled with the memories of his loved ones and the end of a plantation that even men in Washington, D.C., knew about.
He continues west. The country becomes rough; the people are rougher. It is wild and unknown. He is threatened and warned off, but he does not waver; he is heading for Texas. He loses his horse in thick vegetation. He cuts a path but the horse will not come (is it afraid of snakes?) and he shoots it. The One Thousand And One Nights is invoked. “How easy it had all been for the man and his carpet.”
A few flies appeared immediately above the horse. “What is it that you want of me?” Counsel asked God. He sat down, and more flies, bigger than any he had known in North Carolina, came to the horse in a black cloud. He took off his hat and tried to wave them away, but more came as if the waving had been a signal for them to come. “What do you want me to do?” he asked God. “Tell me what it is.” He looked up and was surprised that the buzzards were circling so soon. He shot at one but missed and no sooner had the sound of the shot gone away than the buzzards began to land.
Counsel thinks of his dead family, his little girls, the Bible. He asks more questions of God. The buzzards come down and join the flies, feasting on the horse, “and ignoring the man who still had some life in him.”
The next chapter the book returns to Virginia. Much later, Counsel is re-introduced and works, cuckolded, with his cousin the sheriff. This strikes me as unnecessary. It is with his horse that Counsel’s story should end. I can think of no more satisfying conclusion. The image is more powerful, the aftershocks more poignant; it is the one image from the book my subconscious chose (even wrongly) to keep in rotation. Ten years from now, it is what I will still remember. A book filled with such powerful images, written in Jones’ masterful language, with dead-ends and constant action, would have few equals.
Of course, that book already exists. I can think of a few of its forms off the top of my head: Midnight’s Children, One Thousand and One Nights, Le Morte D’Arthur, Don Quixote.