I had gotten more than a little jaded about memoirs. The first wave of ennui hit after it began to seem, sometime in the 1990s, as though the printed page were being used to save on the high cost of therapy. Many were sloppy, others unjustifiable. Things got worse when readers had to wonder whether the memories they were reading were fact or fiction. It just didn't seem worth the price of admission.
That said, "Little Boy Blues," Malcolm Jones' quiet memoir of growing up in North Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s with his beloved, controlling mother, reinvigorates the form and helps us to remember why we bother to read other people's faulty memories in the first place.
In the hands of a subtle, disciplined writer, memoir provides a rich palette. As every fiction writer knows, the backward glance provides the sweetest frame with the greatest potential for wisdom, forgiveness and the appreciation of beauty. "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone" -- this view can swamp a writer given to sentiment, but it can also cast a beautiful light on landscapes, events, decisions and cares.
It helps, in this case, that Jones has been a book critic for many decades. He knows better than to run on; he thinks things through before writing them down, without losing the vitality of discovery.
Jones' parents divorced when he was 12. He was an only child and bore the brunt of their constant bickering, as well as the more violent arguments, alone. The tension these arguments created is, as always, heartbreaking. What Jones makes crystal clear is the amount of brainpower a child must use to love the people who are making his life miserable; to feel safe in the midst of debilitating precariousness. "Even at five," he writes, "I had become a connoisseur of how grown-ups quarreled."
Jones spends a sorrowful amount of time decoding the meaning behind his mother's every glance, in part because she is the most stable adult in his immediate family (a nearby aunt and uncle provide care and stability as well), but Jones' father is a classic. Charming, handsome, alcoholic and unable to hold a job, he disappears for months at a time, leaving a bitter wife and a bewildered son.
There's a lot of denial in the air, spun out of goodness (his mother's desire to protect her son) but also out of willfulness (we are good, strong, proud Christians). When his parents finally divorce, Jones' mother refuses child support, in spite of extremely reduced circumstances. It isn't until quite late in the memoir that Jones reveals he had a bald spot at the age of 11 from sitting in his room and pulling his hair out while his parents argued. Jones' mother released her stress in catty asides and frequent hysterical outbursts that young Malcolm learned to read like oncoming weather.
All this decoding can create a kind of buffer zone for a child between the self and others, an animal instinct for self-preservation that affects one's desire and ability to readily, easily engage. So Jones has to work extra hard to sort through his memories. He is keenly aware that while photographs can be helpful, they offer a parallel narrative: "Photographs are no more real than paper dolls," he says, "and, like paper dolls, you can too easily impose your own narrative on them."
In the background of this memoir, the South also complicates the child's horizon, with its own coded vocabulary, reprimanding glances and generations clinging to a crumbling way of life. Malcolm finds great pleasure in obscure words like "portly," "manse" and "pester." His church and its music provide a kind of culture, but movies and music (mainly the blues) speak to him in refreshingly clear tones. "So this is what music can do to you," he thought when he was first transported by the blues. "This is how powerful it can be and with tools no more complicated than a voice and a guitar."
A few of Jones' memories are not entirely processed but are lovely and profound just the same -- his love of marionettes and his struggle to defend that joy against a culture that didn't believe boys should play with dolls.
As his mother's soul caves in on itself, Jones grows into a young man. He stops enabling her fantasies about the past. He peels himself off from her, culminating in a disagreement about God. The book ends here because he is no longer a little boy.
"Little Boy Blues" renews a reader's faith in memoir for another reason. With all the hype, marketing and lying that the genre's been subjected to in recent years, I had forgotten that it is also the most vulnerable, intimate form a writer can employ. Often, this gets covered over in support-speak: the way a writer's memories turn into a way to help alleviate the pain of others suffering from similar memories. Jones is far too good a writer to indulge in messianic messages: We see his full emptiness. We don't know him, but he gives us a key to imagine the shape of his consciousness -- the parts that were numbed, the parts that cannot engage the world out of fear of unpredictability and unreliability.
We see, too, the damaging effects of an overly controlling parent. Jones' mother means well, but it is suffocating just reading about her, much less sharing a small apartment with her. Don't do this, don't do that. The writer doesn't say it, but no wonder his father left. "Little Boy Blues" is a carefully thought-out, deftly written book, one that restores dignity to a form that had fallen from grace.
Salter Reynolds is a writer living in Los Angeles.