- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

By Kaylie Jones
Morrow, $25.99, 372 pages, illus.

All the time that I was spellbound reading this searing, brutally honest memoir, I kept thinking that Kaylie Jones was the perfect proof — and equally the perfect refutation — of that famous dictum by British poet Philip Larkin: “They [mess] you up, your Mum and Dad.”

Of course, as many readers will know from his published letters, that fine old four-letter word he used when he meant mess was one of his absolute top favorites. It was certainly a word that Ms. Jones heard a lot growing up from her famous father James Jones (of “From Here to Eternity Fame”) and her even more profane mother, actress Gloria Mossolino (a sometime stand-in for Marilyn Monroe), who probably gave Larkin a run for his money in using it as often as possible in a sentence. And also a word that Ms. Jones overused to a fault in her published debut to the point that it was positively off-putting even to those who do not mind profanity. It occurs throughout “Lies My Mother Told Me” as well, but always to good effect, whoever is saying it.

Kaylie Jones was in many ways a fortunate girl and young woman growing up and she knows it. She is deeply appreciative of her father’s special place in American literature and has honored his memory as a devoted keeper of the flame by organizing symposia as well as prizes and fellowship. Through him, she also feels a special connection to the American GI of World War II, for whom James Jones was the ultimate soldier’s writer. Her childhood visits with her father to Omaha Beach and other sites (including the war cemeteries) related to the Normandy landings made a huge impression on her. Her later visits there serve as a kind of Leitmotiv through this book, connecting her present with her past and her with her beloved father.

Ms. Jones‘ childhood in Paris was luxurious and uncommonly interesting, with her parents at the center of a magic circle of American literary expatriates that included such luminaries as James Baldwin, William Styron, Irwin Shaw and Budd Schulberg. Unlike them, she spoke perfect French but like them she managed to be 100 percent American. So although it was an adjustment to return to live in the United States when she was a teenager, this had more to do with her father’s declining health than with culture shock. In fact, it was James Jones‘ congestive heart failure that had impelled him to abandon his happy life in Paris and come home to be treated by American doctors; sadly he died only a few years later in 1977, when Kaylie was still only 17.

Although James Jones‘ heart condition was apparently a result of malaria he had contracted in the Pacific theater during World War II, his daughter is in no doubt that it was exacerbated by his excessive consumption of alcohol. Despite his alcoholism, he managed to be a dedicated writer, discipline driving him to his writing desk every morning at six no matter the bender he had been on the night before.

Similarly, it seems never to have stopped him from being a loving, nurturing dad to Kaylie and to the son he and his wife had adopted after she was unable to have any more of her own. But the toll that his drinking took on his fragile health meant that he was taken from her at an early and vulnerable age; and so, despite his fine qualities as a father, he dealt her a devastating blow by removing himself from her when she needed him so desperately. It was this result of his alcoholism, rather than any overt meanness on his part, which contrived to knock her off her axis and so to mess her up good and proper.

Gloria Jones on other hand was a mean drunk, cursed with all the bad qualities and habits associated with the beast. Her daughter is unflinching in her chronicle of these depredations, physical, mental and emotional, and the coruscating effect they had on her and those close to her, particularly in her quarter-century-long widowhood. But she is also generous in her assessment of her mother’s good qualities, how much fun she could be, and how generous, that is when her demons were not possessing her. A recovering alcoholic herself, Ms. Jones understands the disease inside and out, but is never didactic in her application of it. She knows what it is and what it isn’t, what it is to blame for and not, and how it affects everyone around. And this knowledge has enlightened her and enabled her to deal with all the damage her mother caused.

What makes “Lies My Mother Never Told Me” such an uplifting book despite all the pain and turmoil it recounts is its revelation of how Kaylie Jones has matured as a person in dealing with her twin legacies, literary and alcoholic, and also as a writer. As one who did not much admire her early work, I was struck by what a fine writer she has become. It would seem from her own account that this has a lot to do with her hard-won sobriety over the past decades and the wisdom and self-knowledge that has come in its wake, as a woman, a wife and a devoted mother. Like D.H. Lawrence, she is entitled to say “Look, We Have Come Through” — and triumphantly.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Washington.

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