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When lives flicker and death is the wind

All Aunt Hagar's Children: Stories
By Edward P. Jones
Amistad, 399 pp., $25.95

One of the most unforgettable scenes in Edward P. Jones's Pulitzer Prize -winning novel, ``The Known World , " described a sick man passing from life into the great beyond. One moment the man was following a conversation ; in the next ``death stepped into the room and came to him." The man then ``walked up the steps into the tiniest of houses, knowing with each step that he did not own it, that he was only renting."

Again and again, Jones reminds that our beloved ``ownership society" does not really extend to our bodies. These we are leasing from God, he suggests, and the terms are entirely of his choosing. The cruelest hubris of slavery, ``The Known World" showed, was how the master and his whip could step in and become one hellishly unforgiving landlord.

Jones's latest collection, ``All Aunt Hagar's Children," returns to the 20th century, forced servitude a thing of the past. But dominion over the flesh is not a sure thing for his cast. They fight temptation, and often give in. They beautify their bodies only to have disease sneak in through an open window. As in Jones's first collection, ``Lost in the City," the conditions for this state of risk arise from the displacement caused by the Great Migration. Many of his characters come from families just one generation removed from slavery. They are new to Washington, D.C., buffeted by their new urbanity. The removal of family can be devastating. In ``A Rich Man," a recent widower blows his savings on large living, fast women, only to be shocked how quickly the sum of his life is eaten up, as if by locusts.

The men in this book are trying to be good, but they are not to be depended on. ``Resurrecting Methuselah" depicts a woman's attempt to raise her daughter alone in the city, while her husband continues his life of whoring in the Army overseas. When cancer comes for him, the woman has to choose whether to make amends or leave him to die alone.

Like William Trevor and Alice Munro, Jones compresses whole novels into these stories. Each new paragraph requires a family tree. This almost biblical layering may slow momentum, but it is the real story here: how a generation passes its fears and wisdom and beliefs on to the next, how a chink in that transfer is likened to death.

Elders often use the grim reaper to pass judgment upon young people's attitudes, which they feel are a betrayal of God or their race or both. ``You look well," one character says to another. ``Maybe workin downtown mongst white folks grees with you." The comment prompts the narrator to bring up a memory of how, at age 8 , he couldn't stop talking about a birthday party he had attended. ``Remember," his mother said chastening him, ``every happy birthday boy is headed for his grave."

When death does not hang over these stories, sickness and potential violence take its place, and the dark warble rings on. In ``Root Worker" an elderly woman is plagued by witches, so her daughter, a physician, agrees to take her down south to be treated with a kind of voodoo medicine. ``Old Boys, Old Girls" tells the story of a convicted murderer, who leaves prison and enters a world of the undead -- he is invisible to employers, and to women, too.

The supernatural flickers at the edge of these stories but never subsumes them entirely. Were that to happen, it would invalidate or trivialize the series of losses -- slavery, migration, poverty, crime, plain old death -- that keeps the door between the living and the dead so in need of oiling.

In the book's powerful title story , a Washington man searches for a childhood friend's killer. Though not truly qualified to investigate, and in a hurry to leave town for Alaska, where he plans to make his fortune, the narrator pursues the case anyway.

``Colored people believed dead people should stay dead," he says, after learning how hard it had been to rent out the victim's apartment after the murder. ``But they also knew that dead people tended to follow their own minds." In this powerful and bleak book, the dead serve one other function: They remind us our lease is not always renewed.

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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