The story is narrated by Betty Butler, a social worker in a black neighborhood, and is set mostly in a bar.
A group of bar patrons discuss Sonny, a neighborhood man who has recently murdered his wife. Lee, the bartender, imagines that Sonny grew increasingly frustrated with his marriage until he snapped. He admits that he has experienced feelings like that himself. Betty Butler recalls a time that she saw Sonny have a seizure while playing basketball in the park, and wonders whether this might have some connection to the murder.
Another patron, Delauney, makes fun of her suggestion. She is perturbed by his lack of concern, and it becomes clear that she might be romantically involved with Delauney, and worried about his daughters. She has seen him slap his daughter's hand, and worries his apathy could harm them. She thinks about times she has seen him with the kids, or talked to him alone in her apartment. Any time she brings up her concern for the girls, he grows angry and she drops the issue.
Back in the present, Lee mentions Sonny again, and Delauney wonders whether the murder was not “the most beautiful thing Sonny has ever done in his whole life, killing the bitch––” (84). Betty tries to remind him that Sonny’s wife was a nice woman, and that he had thought so himself. However, Delauney grows agitated. He insists that the murder was not Sonny's fault, that the man must have lost control of himself. He grabs Lee's apron, and begs Lee to agree that people lose control of themselves. His desperation makes Lee and Betty uncomfortable.
“Talkin Bout Sonny” is one of Bambara’s experiments with narrative structure. Though Sonny’s crime propels the story, it is neither thematically important nor dramatically central. Rather, it is just a pretext for us to get to know Lee, Betty, and Delauney over the course of a short conversation. Bambara suggests an entire world of relationships simply through the reactions that the characters have to Sonny's violent act.
As in “Playin with Punjab,” this story is narrated by a social worker who offers a unique perspective on urban life. By depicting Harlem from Betty Butler’s perspective, Bambara is able to discuss and critique elements of the neighborhood that a native might not notice. For example, Miss Butler is able to put aside her relationship with Delauney to question him when she sees him slap his daughter. Because she is new to Harlem, it is easier for her to identify a problem like this than it might be for Lee, who has presumably known Delauney for years and might take certain levels of neglect for granted. Bambara also uses this conceit in “Playin with Punjab”––whose action is driven by a Miss Ruby, a social worker from Brooklyn––and “Mississippi Ham Rider,” which is narrated by a Northerner visiting the South.
However, what is unique here is that Betty Butler seems to have a romantic relationship with Delauney. Though this is not explicitly stated, the fact that Delauney visits her apartment, that she watches his basketball games, and that she knows the children so well all suggest a deeper connection. Further, when he critiques her, he compares her to other women with whom he has been involved, including an ex-wife. Bambara does not comment on this association, but instead lets it stand as a comment on the level of association that social workers have with troubled neighborhoods. Is it better to get involved in the lives of the people there, drinking and sleeping with them? Or better to remain aloof?
The way other characters relate to Betty reveals their personalities. Delauney knows that Betty is a social worker, and yet reveals a rather dark, desperate side during his reflections on Sonny. This could suggest he is mentally unhinged - an interpretation that is reinforced by his breakdown at the end of the story. In an insular community like Harlem in the 1960s and early 1970s, speaking with a social worker might easily provide a person’s only interaction with the world outside their neighborhood. Because of this, characters like Betty function as a kind of Rorschach test; people’s reactions to them bring out personal qualities that would not otherwise be apparent in daily life. It is doubly complicated because Betty knows his children so well. The fact that he seems so disturbed and yet she apologizes for him to herself - "What the hell, I'm sure he's a good father" - suggests that her level of connection might be blinding her from her duty (82).
Gender serves a related function in this story, drawing out people’s personalities and putting them into complex situations that test their characters. In “Talkin Bout Sonny,” Betty is an interloper in the bar, not only because she is a social worker, but also because of her gender. Likewise, Delauney instinctively sides with Sonny despite fairly compelling evidence that his murder was unjustified. Delauney’s treatment of his daughter Arlene parallels Sonny’s violence towards his wife. While Delauney’s interactions with Lee are pathetic and might inspire sympathy, his treatment of women showcases his problematic narcissism and sense of entitlement. Betty, as social worker, has an opportunity to take his children away, but she reinforces his patriarchal attitude through her relationship with him. She continues to associate with him even though he treats her and his daughter in an aggressive manner. Bambara subtly suggests that gender limitations transcend racial and economic limitations, causing certain problems like child neglect to go unaddressed.