Looking back through the eyes of a boy
By Connie Ogle
The capricious nature of memory fascinates Malcolm Jones. What we remember of our past is a vital question to a memoirist bent on exploring life when he was growing up in North Carolina in the 1950s and ’60s.
What’s most surprising to Jones, author of the elegiac memoir Little Boy Blues, is the startling way in which memories re-emerge.
“I can remember one day I was writing about living with my aunt and uncle,” says the long-time Newsweek writer, who appears Monday at Books & Books in Coral Gables, “watching the kids coming out of the school across the street. I wrote that and stopped and stared at it. I had not had that memory until I wrote it! The memory was obviously in my brain somewhere, and for 50 years I hadn’t thought of it at all. And all of a sudden there it was, clear as day. That happened two or three times. . . . The mysteries of memory just grow and grow for me.”
Jones turned out to be exceptionally adept at excavating memories of being an only child of parents who lived apart for big chunks of his childhood, officially divorcing (rare in those days) when he was 12. He writes of an early love for marionettes (“dolls,” according to more disdainful relations) and of later falling in love with music after hearing one of his uncle’s old blues records. He never laments growing up an only child: “It gave me a rich interior life. I learned very early to entertain myself.”
Jones’ father drank too much and disappeared for months; his mother — who is really the focus of Jones’ bittersweet story — suffered and not quietly. Little Boy Blues (Pantheon, $24.95) explores their tempestuous marriage, their extended families and an old-fashioned Southern lifestyle, in which “[m]y earliest views on life were formed by people who, even when they weren’t born in the nineteenth century, saw the world much as it was seen during Reconstruction.” Jesus was more or less considered one of the family.
The death of Jones’ mother inspired the book, which is chockfull of fascinating old family photographs. “It was as though a planet had suddenly been removed from the solar system, and not some marginal Pluto-like dwarf planet but one as big as Jupiter or Saturn,” he writes. He says he had always hoped for some “breakthrough,” some sort of final connection between them, yet it eluded him.
“When my father died [six years before his mother], it was sort of like everything went off kilter and then righted itself,” Jones says from his home in the Hudson River Valley. “I absorbed it somehow, so I guess I thought the same thing would happen when my mother died, and it didn’t. . . . Writing is not exactly second nature to me, but writing is the way I think. Sometimes I don’t even know what I think until I write it down. . . . I won’t call it therapy, but writing the book was a way to see if I could make sense of this.”
Finding the voice of the boy he once was proved difficult at first for Jones, who counts himself a fan of memoirists as diverse as Russell Baker, Mary Karr and Augusten Burroughs. Then he recalled an interview he’d done with the late Frank McCourt, author of the harrowing Angela’s Ashes, one of the most searing childhood memoirs ever published.
“He said he wrote and wrote and wrote at that book, and one day out of the blue he began to write it out of that child’s voice. He said, `As soon as I got that voice, I knew I could write the book.’ Is that true for everybody? I’m not sure. But it was kind of true for me.”
The boy’s sense of the world is what novelist Eric Kraft finds most remarkable about Little Boy Blues.
“He does something that very few people ever manage to do in a memoir, and that is to recover again the view of life through the eyes of the child,” says Kraft, author of the Flying trilogy. “It requires not only skill and a kind of empathy with one’s younger self but also patience because there is the temptation always to jump in and say, `I now understand so much more about this than I did at the time.’ To avoid that and to step aside long enough to allow that child’s view that would otherwise be obscured is really rare. . . . That’s the sort of thing that Henry James did in What Maisie Knew, and that’s pretty good company to be in.”
Jones tackles a number of difficult subjects, including the trickiest of them all: race as seen through the eyes of a white family in the deep South. He didn’t shy away from his family’s casual racism (“No one in my family saw anything wrong with giving a child a minstrel-show marionette as a Christmas present”) and assesses their careless attitudes this way: “They tolerated change when it didn’t inconvenience them and otherwise turned a blind eye to the inequalities inherent in segregation.”
“There’s nothing worse than judging people by the standards of the present, so I tried to write about it without alibiing for them,” Jones says. “I wanted to put them in the context of their time. This wasn’t a matter of making excuses for them. But I think when people do talk about eras, whether it’s the summer of love or the civil rights era, the easy thing to do is to fall back into thinking in headlines. The fact is, day-to-day reality doesn’t resemble that very often.”
Writing the book, displaying the uglier side, in the end offered a sort of knowledge, if not exactly the solace for which Jones had been longing.
“I think I gained a measure of respect for my mother that I hadn’t completely articulated or had only paid lip service to. My father, too. Here were these people, and they were, like the song says, looking for love in all the wrong places. My mother. It’s highfaluting to call her a tragic figure, but she became a woman who wanted to be loved, and her way of asking for that or demanding that in the end pushed everybody away from her. I gained that understanding.”