Paul Theroux wrote this short story which appeared on line at The New Yorker in September 2007. The narrator is a man remembering his father from many years previous. Right up front, he tells the reader that not only is his father impossible to know, but that family life is full of disorder and tension. The narrator’s father is a rather passive man, married to a domineering and critical woman, and he begins to practice for his role in a minstrel show. He dons the black face - a mask of sorts - and becomes Mr. Bones.
The story has a disturbing undercurrent, touching on racism, marital discord, and a young boy’s confusion about it all. Theroux’s writing is sharp and observant. He captures the uneasy relationships well; and forces the reader to examine the idea of hiding behind our own masks - whether it be in our personal lives or in front of an audience. As the story comes to its conclusion, the reader is left to ponder its true message.
This big event was just a talent show to Louie; and his white-haired father, who worked on the M.T.A. buses, was just an old guy singing. Yet in our house Mr. Bones had intimidated everyone. He was now someone to fear, saying the things that he normally avoided saying. In his minstrel-show costume, he could be as reckless as he wanted. -From Mr. Bones-
I found this short story stunning in many ways - the writing rich and compelling. But it is not an easy story to understand. Luckily, I read it for the 21st Fiction yahoo discussion group and so I was able to explore its many facets with other readers.