"Mr. Bones: Twenty Stories" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), by Paul Theroux
The title piece of Paul Theroux's new short story collection, "Mr. Bones," is a son's account of the conflicted time in the early 1950s when his father began practicing for the role of a black man in a minstrel show.
The father, a shoe store salesman with a too-agreeable disposition, has a large family, a grumpy wife and a flawed, newly purchased house she dislikes. In this setting the father puts on greasepaint and acts out the blackface character known as Mr. Bones, wearing a big clown smile, a floppy suit and bow tie, a vest, a wig and white gloves. He jokes crudely, sings odd rhyming songs and begins to bang a tambourine.
This rehearsal for the minstrel show tests the son's patience. It may test the reader's, too — this creepy figure out of the Jim Crow era is not very funny; he's even a bit menacing. But a Theroux story can be a mesmerizing reading experience. It is hard to put him down when he is on a roll, as he is with this odd, perplexing story, one in which a possible new level of meaning seems to appear at the end.
"The wickedest episodes of revelation can have the most innocent beginnings," the narrator of the story says at one point.
That is true of "Mr. Bones," published in The New Yorker magazine in 2007, and many of the other stories in Theroux's latest collection of short fiction.
These closing "episodes of revelation" make his stories enticing as they unfold across a wide variety of locations. Often they introduce characters — even some central characters — who are unlikable or whose motives are unclear for much of the narrative. Not all the stories succeed, such as "Rangers" with its tricky dialogue, but they invariably leave lasting impressions.
When the story ends with a sense of revelation — such as "Another Necklace," ''Autostop Summer" and "I'm the Meat, You're the Knife" — they make rereading a pleasurable imperative.
Two of the pieces — "Voices of Love" and "Long Story Short" — are a bit different from the others. They are collections of first-person accounts, each maybe one-page long, that spill out a heartfelt or burdensome memory. Those in "Voices of Love" are like juicy letters to a "True Romance" magazine column; in "Long Story Short," they might have been the dark, plaintive stories heard at a bar while next to a talkative stranger. They won't be tasty for everyone, but they are devoured quickly.
Theroux draws on personal experiences in crafting some of the stories, such as "Heartache," which grew out of a visit in rural Alabama with aging writer Mary Ward Brown shortly before she died. Many revolve around the intimacies and travails of husbands and wives, children and lovers.
Theroux has been a widely enjoyed author for more than 40 years, both for his travel books and his fiction. Once again his far-flung adventures and captivating accounts from many of the world's most intriguing, least understood outposts add depth and richness to the material here.
This collection is another feast, and many readers will enjoy a prolonged chew on "Mr. Bones."