Southern literature is awash in stories about sensitive young boys with domineering mothers, dissolute fathers and quirky extended families. Malcolm Jones’ Little Boy Blues partakes of all these elements, but he doesn’t turn any of them into the usual cut-and-paste stereotypes.

Now a cultural critic for Newsweek, Jones writes of his early boyhood years in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and of the emotional pain and confusion his schoolteacher mother and alcoholic father incidentally inflicted on him. Jones was born in 1952, 10 years after his parents married. By the time he came along—he would be an only child—his father was already drinking heavily, unable to keep a job and often absent for long and unexplained periods. When Jones was 11, his parents divorced. His mother made the most of her “martyrdom,” always letting her “brave little man” know how much she depended on him to reflect well on her. Consequently, he grew up pretty much a loner. If there were best friends or wise teachers in whom Jones confided or found ongoing solace, he fails to mention them.

Instead, Jones turned to music, movies and television for comfort. He recalls being enraptured by an ancient Chris Bouchillon phonograph record he found at his grandmother’s house when he was five. Then there was the summer he spent with his father, during which they would sit together in the evening and watch the Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs TV show. Often he and his mother attended movies together, after which they would discuss them. But even here, her discontent and self-absorption always tainted the experience.

Jones writes with a curiously detached tone, almost as if he’s describing someone else, and he offers no happy ending, no moments of lightheartedness. Although he remained a dutiful son, the tension between who he was and who his mother wanted him to be never abated. She died in 2004, when she was 90. “My mother hated change, especially in me,” he concludes. “But that took years to figure out.”

Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.

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