The late Robert Jones, Editor-in-Chief of HarperCollins Publishers, passed away eight years ago today. The literary legacy he left behind as an editor, as well as an author, is a great one. He edited critically acclaimed bestselling authors Russell Banks, Oscar Hijuelos, Ann Patchett, Francine Prose, Denis Johnson, Armistead Maupin, A.M. Homes, and Mark Doty, to name just a few. He was the author of two highly praised novels of his own -- Force of Gravity and Walking On Air. He was brilliant, charismatic and caustic -- the person you always wanted by your side at a cocktail party. He was also a dear friend.
In his first novel, Force of Gravity, which won the Whiting Writer's Award, Jones tells the story of Emmett Barfield:
Paranoid yet judiciously reasonable, innocent yet calculating, strange yet strangely endearing, Emmet Barfield finds the world around him looming larger and larger the more he struggles to make his way within it. With Emmet as our guide, Force of Gravity transforms the world through a solitary consciousness until the reader's perceptions become as inverted as if seen through a modern version of Alice's looking glass. Emmet's world is a place where shopping in a market requires the cunning of a carefully considered crime, where a bustling city street in summer appears as desolate as a forgotten wasteland, where a stray cat adopted for company becomes as menacing as one's darkest foe, and where a mother and son riding a ski lift suddenly find themselves dizzy with the threat of death. Through his eyes, the world becomes newly alive with the terrible vividness and weird beauty of an undiscovered territory.
In Walking on Air, Jones tells the story of William Addams, who is dying, and, estranged from his family, fears he will be abandoned by his two closest friends:
What he wants is for their faithfulness to last until they take him home to his beloved house to die. But as William's condition worsens, it becomes apparent that his expectations of devotion and loyalty involve not simply a loving commitment but the virtual handing over of his friends' vitality and independence; indeed, William covets their very lives. Filled with penetrating insights and dazzling beauty, Walking on Air explores the shadowy, often disturbing parameters of devotion, demonstrating its inevitable limits as well as its astounding powers of transformation.
I have a confession to make: I have yet to read these books. Somehow, I feel as though as long as I haven't read them, Robert isn't really gone, and that there is still a part of him that I have not yet met, still one more drive to Long Island that we'll take, still one more drink we can share together at the hotel bar next to our office. I fear that once I close the pages, what I have lost will be made more real than it has so far in these past eight years.
But I should heed what Francine Prose writes in her introduction to Force of Gravity, about the power of art. I should make myself understand emotionally what I know intellectually, "that good writing, that literature, that art will--if necessary, despite ourselves--endure, survive and outlive us all."