I'm quite surprised by this Paul Theroux story, which is simultaneously simple and bizarre, and written in a strangely detached first person. I must say that I like it a lot.
The story takes the form of a reminiscence of childhood, from a man we presume to be around Theroux's age. It opens with a description of the narrator's father, an unfailingly cheerful man at the mercy of a nagging wife--herself at the mercy of four children, and a fifth on the way. After a move to a new house plagued by problems, the silent war between the parents takes on a new intensity, which is broken only when the father accepts a role in a local minstrel show.
At this point, the father abandons his familiar personality, starts coming home from work (at a shoe store) in blackface, and will only speak as "Mr. Bones." Eventually he even begins to carry around a tambourine, which he shakes every time he utters a one-liner. He only utters one-liners. His wife's criticisms are answered with sneering insults and shakes of the tambourine, and the children stare in horror and amazement every time he opens his mouth. By the time the show rolls around, the mother has abandoned her complaints and has become a sympathetic, even pathetic character, and the father has become a different person entirely. "He was happy, definitely happy, powerfully happy," the narrator says, understanding that his previous cheerfulness was not happiness but misery, "talking to us, teasing us in ways I'd never heard before."
The tension culminates in a round of manic questions to his family: he asks them, one by one, "What are you going to do for Mr. Bones?" The children state their ambitions, and then Mr. Bones says, of their mother, "That's was no lady. That was my wife!" The following week, the show is performed, and it's all over--Dad goes back to normal, watching the civil rights movement unfold on TV, "perhaps thinking about how Mr. Bones had been liberated, too, or banished. It was not what Dad had expected."
There's something delightfully linear about this story--no time is wasted on extraneous detail; it's all about Dad's metamorphosis. When we do get detail, it's cutting and on task: the mother, playing the piano, "reached over her pregnancy as though across a counter," and then "pounded the keys and tramped on the pedals, as though she were at the wheel of some sort of vehicle, a big wooden bus that she was driving down a steep hill with her feet and hands."
For a long time I couldn't think of Theroux without thinking of his depressing feud with his former friend V. S. Naipaul, and because I had recently read something good of Naipaul's and something bad of Theroux's when the feud came to light, I found myself on Naipaul's "side," moronic as that may seem. And this piece kind of serves to redeem Theroux in my mind, however much that little calculus serves to deepen the stupidity of my previous feelings.
Also this story kept making me think of John Berryman, whose own Mr. Bones was no less creepy than Theroux's. And I like thinking of Berryman.