Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Thom Jones 1945-2016

American short story writer Thom Jones has just died at age 71, from complications from diabetes.  Here are some comments about a few of  his stories I wrote several years ago:

Thom Jones appeared on the literary scene in the early 1990’s with a flurry of awards.  His first story, ”The Pugilist at Rest,” was chosen for Best American Short Stories in 1992 and won first prize in the 1993 O. Henry Awards.  His first book, also titled The Pugilist at Rest, was short listed for the 1993 National Book Award.  The story “I Want to Live” was chosen for Best American Short Stories in 1993.  “Cold Snap” was chosen for Best American Short Stories in 1994, and “Way Down Deep in the Jungle” appeared in Best American Short Stories in 1995.  Jones was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1994 and 1995. His other short-story collections include Cold Snap, 1995, and Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine, 1999.

Jones was born in Aurora, Illinois in 1945, the first of three children.  His father was a professional fighter who became an engineer in the aerospace industry. After his father left when Jones was a child, his mother remarried.  Jones spent most of his childhood with his grandmother, who ran a grocery store.  His interest in boxing came from his father who often took Jones, beginning when Jones was seven, to the gym for boxing lessons.

Jones entered the Marine Corps in 1963, preparing to go to Vietnam.  However, after receiving a head injury in a boxing match, he became epileptic and was not deployed overseas.  On discharge from the service, he went to school at the University of Hawaii and then earned a degree in English from the University of Washington.  He was accepted into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, from which he received an M.F.A. in 1973.  He bounced back and forth between work in Aurora as a janitor and work in Chicago and Seattle as an advertising copywriter.  He got married and worked as a janitor for twelve years at North Thurston High School in Lacey, Washington, a suburb of Olympia, where his wife was librarian.  In 1986, he began rehab treatment for alcoholism, after which he became diabetic.

Jones has said that one morning in 1992, he had got home from the graveyard shift and was watching the Today show on television and drinking ale when he saw an old Iowa classmate, Tracy Kidder, being interviewed.  He said he was as low as he could get and just decided to start writing again.  In his biographical comments in the 1993 O. Henry Award Prize Stories, he says he wrote the story "The Pugilist at Rest" in a sort of "controlled ecstatic frenzy."  He recalls that one day, just as he was getting ready to go to work, his agent called to tell him that The New Yorker had accepted “The Pugilist at Rest.”  About two minutes later, he says, she called to say that Esquire had accepted another story.  Just as he started out the door to go to work, she called a third time to tell him that Harper’s  was going to publish the story “I Want to Live.”

Between 1992 and 1999, Jones published three collections of stories, went on book tours, did readings, taught part time, and conducted seminars and writers’ workshops.  He taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop as a guest instructor between 1994 and 1996.  However, since the publication of his third collection, he published little else, instead doing some screenplay writing.  He lived in Olympia, Washington.

Some critics have suggested that Jones is a realist who introduces us to a segment of society that we do not often see and do not really know--captives of veterans’ hospitals, wanderers around the fringes of prize fighting gyms, whacked-out refugees of disillusionment, existential absurdists in a drug-induced world of their own. However, Jones's stories are less realistic than hallucinatory, more figural than sociological, more metaphoric than mimetic.  When you enter a Thom Jones story, you put normality aside and live momentarily in a world that most of us only know in those rare moments of hallucination when we are fevered or highly medicated.  What is most characteristic of Jones's style is the runaway voice of characters spaced out, speeded up, and thus somehow in touch with a strange magic that transcends the everyday world and throws the reader into a nether world between fantasy and reality.

The title story of Jones’s enthusiastically received first collection of stories is typical of the style and narrative method that early readers found irresistible.  The voice of the narrator, who describes training and fighting as a marine and a boxer, sounded so raw and convincing that many early reviewers declared, incorrectly, that Jones had served in Vietnam.  The story begins with a young recruit called Hey Baby being razzed for a letter he wrote to a girlfriend.  When Hey Baby begins harassing the narrator’s buddy Jorgeson, a guy who admires Jack Kerouac and wants to practice Zen Buddhism, the narrator hits him in the temple with the butt of his M-14, fracturing his skull. 

After boot camp, when the narrator runs into Jorgeson again at Camp Pendleton in Southern California, Jorgeson has become a gung-ho Marine.  The only Vietnam War scene in the story describes a battle in which the narrator’s gun jams and he watches helplessly as many of his comrades are killed, including his buddy Jorgeson, all of which Jones recounts in gruesome detail. The story then shifts to the narrator’s discussion of the concept of bravery, referencing the gladiator Theogenes, a powerful boxer who is depicted in a famous Roman statue named “The Pugilist at Rest.”  The narrator says he has discovered a reservoir of malice and sadism in his soul that poured out in Vietnam, where he served three tours, seeking payback for the death of Jorgeson and his other comrades.  After returning home from Vietnam, he takes up boxing and gets hit so hard and so repeatedly by another boxer that he develops epileptic seizures, which cause a kind of aura that he describes as being satori.  The story ends with his realization that good and evil are only illusions and doubting whether his vision of Supreme Reality is anything more than like the demons visited on madmen. 

Thom Jones provided a bit of welcome ragged, rough-edged relief to the clean lines of M.F.A. storytelling at the end of the 1980s, but it is probably his linking a rambling macho voice with the seeming erudition suggested by his quotations from Schopenhauer that made early critics so enthusiastic about this story.

Jones has suggested that his stories often begin with an overheard line around which he develops a distinctive voice. Then, "like a method actor," he says, he falls into character and writes "instinctively without a plan or an idea as to what will happen." Jones creates a persona for his possessed writing style in the character Ad Magic, featured in the story "The White Horse" in The Pugilist at Rest and "Quicksand" in Cold Snap.  Whereas Ad Magic winds up in India after a seizure of epileptic amnesia in the earlier story, in this new piece, he is a direct mail wizard in Africa, writing fund appeal letters for the Global Aid Society hunger effort.  Ad Magic, who takes his name from his ability to lapse into a trance-like state and tap into a writing frenzy, is, like other Jones characters, suffering from a variety of pains, ills, and drugs.  In this story, his thumb, which has been broken, throbs with pain, and he has malaria--complete with chills, hypnogogic dreams, and "visceral evacuation.”

Typical of Jones's physically tormented characters, Ad Magic feels caught in the quicksand of Africa's heart of darkness, "sinking deeper and deeper," existentially filled with angst and a sense of absurdity, feeling like a marionette in a Punch and Judy show and that life is nothing but a big cartoon.  As Ad Magic says at one point, "Life's a dream."  Ad Magic is filled with anger at the lies, duplicity, and deceit at the heart of life; however, he gleefully engages in deceit himself by sending small baggies of crushed up Milk Bones with his appeal letter, telling recipients that it is the only food that poor Africans have to eat.  "Quicksand," whose title comes from a 1960s song by Martha and the Vandellas, ends much as the earlier Ad Magic story does--with Jones's fevered persona caught up in one of his frenzied writing seizures and, as usual, going too far.

In the title story of Jones’s second collection, the central character is back from Africa after malaria and a "manic episode" got him sent home, where he lost his medical license for drug abuse.  Like Ad Magic with his broken thumb, Richard, the character in this story, has a throbbing thumb, which he cut while trying to assemble a battery tester, and for which he must go to doctor where he gets the inevitable pain pills.  Richard's younger sister, Susan, a schizophrenic, who in one of her many suicide attempts puts a bullet through her temple and gives herself a perfect lobotomy, is the most important figure in this story, for she provides him with his best hope for finding some relief from his own episodes of depression.

Richard, who says he is in one of his Fyodor Dostoevsky moods, cures himself temporarily by putting a gun to his head, spinning the cylinder, and pulling the trigger.  The relief he experiences he attributes to what he calls the Van Gogh effect, for Van Gogh said he felt like a million dollars when he cut off his ear.  However, Richard's more promising and possibly more lasting "island of stability" occurs when Susan tells him about her dream of the two of them driving a 1967 Dodge around Heaven, where he will not have to ask any more existential questions. The story ends as they sit in the front seat of his car and eat the lunch he brought--"the best little lunch of a lifetime"--while outside it rains and inside the radio plays the Shirelles singing "This is Dedicated to the One I Love."

In "Tarantula," 38 pages are devoted to making life hell for John Harold Hammermeister, an ambitious, admittedly not very likeable, young academic who takes the job as assistant principal at W.E.B. Du Bois High School in urban Detroit.  Hammermeister, who has big plans of climbing the ladder to the position of state superintendent, keeps a tarantula on his desk to intimidate students and faculty, but meets his comeuppance from a janitor who reads Joseph Conrad and who stabs the tarantula with a number one Dixon pencil.  Then, with the help of another janitor, he puts duct tape over Hammermiester's eyes and mouth and beats his legs, knees, and elbows with a baseball bat.  All great satiric fun, with ex-janitor Jones self-indulgently enjoying himself.

One of the better stories in Jones last collection is the title story, which deals with an adolescent male who tries to find some heroic or romantic meaning in the world.  Although Sonny Liston is not really a friend of Kid Dynamite, the young boxer in the title story, he does meet him once (as Jones has said he himself did when he was a young man), and Liston signs a picture for him, "To the Kid, from your friend, Sonny Liston."  The story is an engaging combination of young boy stuff--throwing snowballs at school, being awkward with a girlfriend, trying to cope with a step-father--and adult stuff-- fighting in the Golden Gloves, trying to establish a career, coping with a dangerous nemesis.  Although the Kid wins his big fight by a split decision, he loses in the long run because a cut over his eye puts him out of the tournament.  The story ends with the inevitable realization that "the real world, which had seemed so very far away all these years, was upon him."


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting on this, Charles.

Thom Jones was great.

Caroline said...

Thanks for this appreciation of Thom Jones.

I'm happy to have found your blog with its loving attention and careful analysis of the short story. It actually led me to buy your book I Am Your Brother, which has sharpened my understanding of the differences between short stories and other fictional works. As a sometime practitioner of the form who is struggling to move my stories from mediocre to good or even great, I wonder: can you recommend five or ten stories written by different writers in the last 30 years that bear close study and could serve as teachers? I know this blog is filled with your appreciation of many writers and Alice Munro in particular, but are there a handful of stories that you think serve as absolute exemplars of the form and that would make for useful study? Many thanks.