Franz Kafka once posed this question: “If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?… A book,” he then insisted, “must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” On most occasions, a first book by a little-known writer will announce itself with quiet courtesy, a firm handshake perhaps, but rarely will it “wake us up with a blow.” The Pugilist at Rest, the debut collection of stories from Thom Jones, lives up to Kafka’s standard of what a book, a work of art, ought to do.
The book is arranged into four parts. In part 1, Jones returns to the hazy “purple fields” of Vietnam and then plunges into the nightmarish aftermath that lingers, decades later, long after the narrators have come home. At the time of their tellings, Jones’s first-person narrators-whose experiences resemble Jones’s own-are still painfully unhinged and damaged by what they have witnessed, haunted by unforgettable glimpses into the gaping mouth of the Vietnam War beast.
The title story, “The Pugilist at Rest,” winner of a 1993 0. Henry Award, is a powerful portrayal of a man, a former Marine and former boxer-like Jones himself-who has been beaten, bruised, and bloodied, a self-bludgeoned fighter who refuses to stay down for the ten-count, no matter what. If there is a code to live by in Thom Jones’s world, it is this: Human beings are all beasts. In the words of his narrator, a self-proclaimed “ground- pounder” who “pulled three tours” of duty in Vietnam:
“There was a reservoir of malice, poison and vicious sadism in my soul I wanted some payback…. I grieved… grieved for myself and what I had lost. I committed unspeakable crimes and got medals for it.”
The telling of “The Pugilist at Rest” is triggered by a discovery rooted in the objective world: Cleaning his attic on Memorial Day, the protagonist comes upon his old dress uniform. Out of the commonplace, though, Jones transports readers to the jungles-turned-battlefields of Vietnam, where what is real is sometimes blurred to assume the satanic mask of a drug-induced hallucination.
I had seen the apparition of a man, cloaked in a trench coat, emerge from the fog, like Humphrey Bogart in a felt hat, tan Burberry, pipe-in-mouth until he lifted his head and showed the face of Lucifer. I remember watching dumbstruck as he removed a doeskin glove to reveal an eagle’s talon rather than a hand.
The exhuming of that “dress-blue uniform” leads to memories not as soothing as, say, some of Marcel Proust’s bedtime musings. instead, in Jones’s hands, the flashbacks rise up out of a past that resists remembering (though, of course, memory has a mind all its own). “A pair of Phantom F-4s came in very low with delayed-action high-explosive rounds and napalm. I could feel the almost unbearable heat waves…. I can still feel it and smell it to this day.” What makes Jones such a powerful storyteller is his ability to articulate the sufferings of his narrators at the time that they finally find the words for what has never been spoken before. A conversational immediacy established between Jones and his invisible reader lends these stories a sense of urgency-as if the words themselves were singular acts of faith.
The Vietnam experience has been written about before-written about with both power and beauty, a type of beauty that can only rise up out of grief-by such first-rate novelists as Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried (1990) and Richard Currey, a hardly read writer whose first novel, Fatal Light (1988), is a prose elegy innocuously disguised as a book. Jones also writes, however, about another Vietnam-a Vietnam of the spirit, of a memory that does not know its own end. To live through events as spiteful and horrific as war, Jones seems to suggest, is never again to know what it means to come home. Yet back home, Vietnam lives on: in Veterans Administration hospitals, in those white-walled hallways where narcotically numbed veterans wander around in epileptic fugues while others rip through the fingertip-tattered pages of The Portable Nietzsche in search of the meaning to all the world’s suffering. Not to speak about the unspeakable crimes to which they have stood witness would be an unspeakable crime in itself. Jones’s tellers-perhaps even Jones himself-want to leave something behind. The words left in their wake are...