- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 18, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

LITTLE BOY BLUES

By Malcolm Jones

Pantheon, $24.95,

228 pages

Reviewed by John Greenya

There are three semi-well-known Malcolm Joneses - past, present and future - and in their own fields, they are all artists. Malcolm Jones past was a comic-book illustrator, the future Mr. Jones is a college football player, and M.J. present is a very fine writer who should be better known, which could be the happy result of this sad but captivating memoir.

As regular readers of Newsweek know, Malcolm Jones the writer has been a contributor to the magazine’s culture section for more than two decades. (Before that, he was a newspaperman in North Carolina, from whence he hails, and Florida.) Among his many fine pieces are a 10-year-old interview with J.K. Rowling and a paean of praise to John Cheever written just last year. I cite them to recommend them, because Mr. Jones is one of those writers who can wring a lot of meaning out of a subject you thought had pretty much been wrung dry.

But now he turns his considerable powers of observation - and recollection - on himself, and the result is a delightful, moving and often unsettling book. “Little Boy Blues” is a perfect title because it accurately describes this book’s contents. It begins with a Proustian moment, but not a pleasant one. Mr. Jones, as an adult, is walking down a Manhattan street with a friend when they witness an old woman collapse and lie motionless on the sidewalk. As if by magic, both a doorman and a nurse appear, and within minutes, the woman is in an ambulance and on her way to the hospital.

But Mr. Jones is shaken, and after a time it hits him: “I saw at last what had so frightened me. It was my mother. Reconstructing the moment in which the woman fell and then lay there on the concrete, small and pale in the ginlike autumn light, I broke open a door kept locked since my mother died, a door behind which hid every image of her steady decline into helplessness and senility and finally death.”

What follows is a slow re-creation of his past and an explanation, as best he can give it, of why he had kept those memories of his mother locked up. At first you marvel at the beauty of the reconstruction, and then you begin to shake your head.

Mr. Jones was born in North Carolina in 1952 to a movie-star-handsome father and a vivacious, rather pretty mother with strong ideas about what a family should be. The problem was that her husband didn’t, or perhaps simply couldn’t, share those ideas. The result was a very troubled marriage. When things would get to be too much for Mack Jones - “things” never really being defined - he would simply vanish. Sometimes he’d be off on a drinking binge, other times he’d just be off. Neither the boy nor his hardworking and increasingly aggrieved mother ever knew when or even if he would be coming back. It could be months, or, as it was toward the end of the marriage, years.

It takes much of the book before we are given all this information, and in the meantime, the boy continues to miss and to love his father and to love and obey his mother - and to show us why. As that dual story unfolds, we see the child enjoy growing up an only (and bit odd) child in the South, specifically both North and South Carolina, in the 1950s and ‘60s, an experience the author re-creates wonderfully on page after page.

We are lulled almost into inattention by the graceful prose and the marvelous observations and insights. For example, he notes his father’s ability to slip away when hectored: “She needled him until - if he was sober - he moved past her with an athlete’s second-nature ability to create space where no space had existed and then keep on going, right out of the apartment.” And when his mother taunted his beloved alcoholic father with all the things he hadn’t done that day, “These were the times I felt most like a prop, or a piece of ordnance that my mother would use against my father.”

The narrative, which gets sadder as the boy grows older, is by no means unrelievedly grim. Mr. Jones writes with far too much humor for that. Of his youthful television fare, limited by the fact that Winston-Salem, N.C. received only two channels, he writes, “Captain Kangaroo came on every morning, but even though I was small, I thought watching Captain Kangaroo was like volunteering for a coma.”

Religion played a big part in young Malcolm’s life. He often stayed with his preacher uncle and his wife. They said grace before meals, even when eating in restaurants, but not out of piety. “We were just showing the flag. Still, religion to me was as water is to a fish: what I lived in with no thought of an alternative. It was not only not a question of doubt, it was not even a question of faith. Jesus and all the stories I knew from the Bible were as real to me as my arms and my legs. Santa and the Easter Bunny were things to believe in. Jesus just was.”

The operative word for this book is arresting, starting with the cover. Staring out from it is a boy of maybe 10, seated in an oversized chair, his left hand holding the open pages of a newspaper. In his right hand he clutches one end of what appears to be a pipe, the other end firmly fixed in the corner of his mouth. His hair is cut short, and he wears an almost comically large pair of dark horn-rimmed glasses, from behind which his eyes stare directly at the photographer.

Turn to the author’s photo on the inside back cover, and behold the grown man, now almost 60, wearing less dark but only slightly smaller horn-rimmed glasses, again staring directly at the photographer. In between these two photos, Mr. Jones relates his journey and lays bare his soul.

By the end, we are not surprised that the author writes, after his mother’s death, “For more than forty years, we were locked in a weird kind of unacknowledged and unceasing conflict … As soon as I got in the same room with her, I began to suffocate. All she wanted was some sign of the little boy who adored her without question, and that was the last thing I was ever going to give her.” Malcolm Jones is a fine writer. He makes you laugh, he makes you cry, he makes you see and feel. Buy and read “Little Boy Blues.”

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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