A review of "Little Boy Blues," Newsweek cultural critic Malcolm Jones' memoir of growing up Southern with a distant, dependent mother and a charismatic, undisciplined father.

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‘Little Boy Blues: A Memoir’

by Malcolm Jones

Pantheon, 240 pp., $24

With a touch as light as the scent of face powder hanging in his mother’s bedroom, Malcolm Jones, a cultural critic for Newsweek, examines scenes from his own childhood, obscured by a miasma of Southern decorum and disappointment.

“Little Boy Blues: a Memoir,” is notable as much for what it isn’t as for what it is. The genre of Southern memoir can be a groaning board of stories about sensitive children, overbearing mothers, reckless daddies and oddball relatives. Those elements are all here, but Jones doesn’t employ caricature or hyperbole in telling his story. In unaffected prose, he explores vignettes from his lifelong attempts to distance himself from his mother, with the dawning realization that his efforts only added links to their chain of dueling dependence.

Growing up in North Carolina in the ’50s and early ’60s, Jones tiptoed around his mother, Margaret, a schoolteacher driven and exhausted by attempts to preserve social appearances while married to his alcoholic, increasingly absent father, Mack.

The family was “casually racist,” ignoring the inherent inequalities around them and passive toward change. A steam iron was considered a modern convenience. Plagued by fears of everything from mayonnaise on sandwiches to neighborhood bullies, Jones felt powerless to rescue his mother from unhappiness, or himself from her increasing reliance on him for validation.

A childhood fascination with marionettes gave Jones a temporary universe where he was master, but after he lost a school talent contest to lip-syncing sisters, he abandoned puppets and turned to cinematic escape at the local theater.

Jones spent summers with his aunt and uncle, a Presbyterian minister whose biggest accomplishment was introducing dial-a-prayer to Winston-Salem. He viewed religion as the family business, with no room for doubt in Jesus. He learned the alphabet from watching his uncle change the plastic letters on the church reader board. His first memories of writing were on his uncle’s LC Smith typewriter.

Jones remembers rare times with his father in beautiful, sensory details. He recalls their fishing trips, where he learned to relax into silence, or the treat of hunting for a soft drink floating in the slushy waters of a country store cooler. He feels guilty for adoring this charismatic, undisciplined man, while his mother struggled to provide consistency and constancy in his life.

His parents’ divorce when he is 12 leaves Jones more relieved than upset, but he feels increasingly claustrophobic as his mother grows more emotionally fragile and reliant on her only child for companionship. She gradually reverts to living in her girlhood memories of happier times in her family home, and vainly tries to freeze her son in her fantasy.

“There was no sudden break, no one single moment when I decided I didn’t want to be my mother’s imaginary playmate any longer. But the rift between us only widened,” he writes.

Adolescent diversions and college brought escape, but Jones ultimately recognizes that his continued fears of disappointing his mother remain just below the surface of his adult success. His mother’s death at age 90 does not bring resolution, only an abrupt halt to their emotional battle for reconciliation.

“Nothing about her dying surprised me much. It’s how fiercely she stayed alive after she was dead that caught me unaware,” he writes. It’s a sad conclusion, for neither gets what they wanted; his mother her idealized little boy, or her son recognition of the accomplished man he has become.