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Perspective is a curious thing. In art, it allows us to see an object in a wholly new light. In life, an adult perspective on one’s childhood can provide a startling new clarity, along with a host of new questions. In his quaint Southern memoir, literary critic Jones tackles his own upbringing. His was neither an idyllic childhood nor a horrifically abusive one. Rather, it is telling in its ordinariness.
A precocious child reared in the Jim Crow South, Jones had an extended family of loving, God-fearing people, but his nuclear family left much to be desired. His father was a distant man, an alcoholic who had trouble keeping a job. His mother responded by berating her husband mercilessly. Predictably, the marriage was short-lived.
Thereafter, it was left to Jones’s mother to provide for him – and persevere she did, though she never found happiness. In hindsight, her instability is much more clear to Jones; he wonders how close she came to a nervous breakdown, and why she never pursued the things that may have brought her contentment. In essence, Little Boy Blues is a heartbreaking look at a marriage gone awry, the small joys of childhood, and the quiet, depressing aftermath of divorce on a young boy and his ill equipped mother – the story of a man looking back at his roots, trying to understand who he is and how he got there.
Jones, a veteran cultural reporter for Newsweek, writes with muted confidence about his difficult childhood, during which the emotional ups and downs of his mostly-single mom seemed monumental, and his undependable, alcoholic father kept him in a state of disorientation. This at-times touching self-portrait depicts a quiet, quirky, self-contained little boy suffering quietly while surrounded by indulging elderly relatives, as well as a mother who hides her disappointment with a middle-class sense of superiority. Unfortunately, little happens in this memoir beyond a taboo-broaching divorce, and Jones fails to make anything significant out of everyday moments of love and tension; curiously, the prospect of engaging the big cultural issues, when it arises, is often set aside. (Though Jones grew up in the South during the turbulent 1950s, he tidily encapsulates "race and bigotry": "they were everywhere and nowhere, like an odorless, tasteless gas"; similarly, religion to him was "as water is to a fish.") Though admirably straightforward, Jones's portrayal is so flat as to give readers little to hold onto. 22 b&w photos.
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A cultural critic for Newsweek recalls his Southern boyhood in a fractured family. At times reminiscent of Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life (1989), Jones's memoir describes an eccentric but loving mother, an alcoholic and passively abusive father and a peripatetic childhood. His late mother, a fifth-grade schoolteacher who spent her summers studying to update her teaching certificate, emerges as a strong woman bound by the procrustean mores of the South and by her conventional ideas about decorum, religion, family and status. Jones spends much of the book trying to understand her, a quest complicated by her Alzheimer's, which isolated her even more in old age. Though mother and son had been very close in his boyhood, his adolescence lowered between them a transparent curtain of misunderstanding. Jones recalls, sometimes in astonishing detail, pivotal experiences of his early childhood. He relives his passion for marionettes, and abrupt abandonment of them when he lost an elementary-school talent contest to some lip-synchers; his love of the movies (he adored Lawrence of Arabia) and the family's hand-crank Victrola; his despair about piano lessons (he loved the instrument, which his mother played well, but hated practicing); and his growing skepticism about religion. Jones confesses frustration about his father's story. A charming but dissolute and laconic man who seems to have wandered out of a Tennessee Williams play, the elder Jones struggled with private demons that made it impossible for him to hold a job for long and resulted in continual abandonment and an eventual divorce that devastated the author's mother. Jones ends with a lovely section about family photographs. Occasionally, theauthor tests readers' credulity with long passages of verbatim dialogue from his preschool years. Fragrant with wistfulness and poignant with regret.