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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Thom Jones

At a glance
The Pugilist at Rest
by Thom Jones

Back Bay Books
240 pages, $16.99

For guys who were raised on Hemingway novels, TV Westerns and Steve McQueen movies, the stories of Thom Jones are irresistible.

In fact, the very word irresistible which came from a New York Times review is emblazoned on the cover of the paperback edition of Jones' first short-story collection, 1993's "The Pugilist at Rest," which just happens to be the August choice of The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

Themes involving Vietnam, head injuries and boxing macho activities all run throughout "The Pugilist at Rest." So, too, does as fatalistic a view of life as you're likely to find.

Take the collection's title tale. Expressed in first person, it pulls us into the life of a Vietnam veteran, a Marine whose self-awareness is equal both to his intelligence and his penchant for brutality not to mention self-destruction.

"Has the world become any better since the times of Theogenes?" he asks in a classically rhetorical exercise, referring to a gladiator who fought, and won, 1,425 fights to the death.

"The world is replete with badness. I'm not talking about the old routine where you drag out the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, Joseph Stalin, the Khmer Rouge, etc. It happens in our own backyard."

Amid such philosophizing, the protagonist of "The Pugilist at Rest" nearly kills a man who abuses his friend, then takes credit for that same friend's war heroics.

He does three tours in Vietnam to pay penance for his duplicity, then gets into the ring with a dangerous opponent who almost does to him what the war didn't and, in any event, leaves him a brain-injured cripple who suffers from regular epileptic seizures.

All the while, the character talks about the Russian writer Dostoevski (who also, he says, was a "hysterical epileptic") and that "clearheaded seer," the German philosopher Schopenhauer. Plus he debates the definition of cowardice and questions the existence of God.

In doing so, he expresses himself in a prose style that is as muscular as it is specific.

"With a tight grip on the spoon, I pulled the pin on a fragmentation grenade and then unsheathed my K-bar," he wrote in the title story. About this time Jorgenson let off a horrendous shriek a gut shot is worse than anything. Or did Jorgenson scream to save my life? The NVA moving in his direction turned back to him, studied him a minute, and thrust a bayonet into his heart."

Or this from the story "The Black Lights": "Weird. Sleeping in the neuropsych ward at night, I sensed the presence of a very large rabbit under my bunk. A seven-foot rabbit with brown fur and skin sores, who took long, raking breaths. I didn't want to do it, but I had to keep getting out of bed to look."

Or this from "I Want to Live!" a story that details a woman's struggle with cancer: "She felt like a naughty little girl sitting before the table looking at meals her daughter was killing herself to make old favorites that now tasted like a combination of forty-weight Texaco oil and sawdust. It was a relief to get back to the couch and work crossword puzzles. It was hell imposing on her daughter but she was frightened. Terrified! They were her blood. They had to take her. Oh, to come to this!"

Badness, if not outright evil, in opposition to doing what's right is an ongoing obsession with Jones. It's as if he's channeling Cormac McCarthy without resorting to the ornate quality of McCarthy's prose.

That said, this quote from Jones' story "Break on Through," another tale of Vietnam, is as close to poetry as some people ever get: "One night while we were setting up in the field, I remember Mason telling me that his head didn't believe in God. 'My head doesn't get it,' Mason said, 'but my heart bleeds for Jesus.' "

Reviewers loved "The Pugilist at Rest," which was a finalist for the National Book Award (Annie Proulx's "The Shipping News" won).

Publishers Weekly chose Jones' story collection as one of its best books of 1993. In his review of the book, the novelist Thomas McGuane wrote in The New York Times: "I frankly wonder whether anyone has written better about this war (Vietnam) or better caught its terrifying otherness."

Library Journal reviewer Mark Annichiarico was unapologetically straightforward about Jones when he wrote, "The themes dominating his first collection are violence, adultery, alcoholism, epilepsy and madness" even though he went on to add that, "The sheer visceral intensity of Jones' prose is amplified by the sensitivity with which his characters are drawn."

As for personal notes, though Jones was born in Illinois in 1945, he lives near Olympia. He served in the Marines, once worked as an advertising copywriter and is a graduate of the prestigious University of Iowa Writer's Workshop.

When he wrote the stories that make up "The Pugilist at Rest," Jones was unknown, making his living as a night janitor. But when The New Yorker published him, and title story won an O. Henry Award, Jones was an immediate hit.

He has written two other story collections, 1995's "Cold Snap" and 1999's "Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine."

As for whether the world has gotten any better since the time of Theogenes, Jones' narrator offers this thought: "Twentieth-century America is one of the most materially prosperous nations in history. But take a walk through an American prison, a nursing home, the slums where the homeless live in cardboard boxes, a cancer ward. Go to a Vietnam vets' meeting, or an A.A. meeting."

What you're likely to find there, he says, is so eye-opening that only Schopenhauer had words for it. And those words have to be rendered in italics: "How hollow and unreal a thing is life, how deceitful are its pleasures, what horrible aspects it possesses."

And then the writer rests.

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