Robert F(rancis) Jones Essay - Critical Essays

Jones, Robert F(rancis)

Jones, Robert F(rancis) 1934–

Jones is an American novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

The problem is to keep things in perspective, to offer objections to Robert F. Jones's first novel, "Blood Sport," without denying the author's considerable talent and accomplishment. Sentence by sentence, the book often displays a resourceful style and palpable dramatic—as well as thematic—possibilities. But as the chapters pile up, some of the potential remains unrealized while Jones indulges himself in aimless digressions, indigestible brews of fact and fantasy, and incessant puns and word plays.

The plot has been dredged from the Ur-womb of American myth. A father, fearing his barely pubescent boy is growing up soft, takes him up the Hassayampa River whose course contains all culture and history from the Neolithic to the near future, all geography from New York to China, and all animal life from the real to the extinct to the apocryphal. The boy's rite of initiation will include virtually every trial from literature and folklore. (pp. 4-5)

It is a familiar story, enormous in its implications, invoking every frontier avatar from Natty Bumpo to Nick Adams. Jones knows this and tries to inject new blood into an old tradition by treating it ironically, parodically, and with Rabelaisian vulgarity. The trouble is that Jones, like the young boy, can't seem to make up his mind. On one hand, he pokes fun at the myth of the American Adam. On the other, he plays it straight and eagerly milks it for serious effect. Ultimately this attempt to have it both ways flaws "Blood Sport." In its abrupt shifts from fact to fantasy, from strong narrative to sterile nonsense, from artfully rendered illusion to unintegrated literary allusion, the book lurches out of focus, wasting its force and frustrating the reader.

The characters, for instance, occasionally lack consistency as Jones gropes and strains to give them archetypal and metaphysical resonance. For all their quirky, fascinating qualities, they at times become little more than clusters of mismatched parts….

More often than not Jones understands that such larger-than-life plots depend for their verisimilitude upon the accuracy of their details. He carefully locates his characters in time and space, and provides them an intimidating expertise with weapons and a preternatural knowledge of the woods. But then he shows them shooting mastodons and unicorns, or hooking a miniature police car with a magical lure, and the reader, who felt he had firm ground under his feet, is hurled into fantasyland. Perhaps if these incidents were more amusing or effectively integrated in the story, they wouldn't obtrude, but as it is, they often break the tone and call attention to themselves.

This failure to control the centrifugal forces of his book sometimes sours even the style, which is Jones's strong suit…. [He often] progresses from a perfectly good effect to a fairly forced one and finally to a poetic reference that fits neither the character nor the context.

And yet … and yet Robert F. Jones is thoroughly at home with much of his material. His descriptions of hunting and fishing are as fine as any you'll read. He knows the territory, covers it meticulously, and manages to make nature the novel's true protagonist. Although Jones sometimes loses his way, the reader should never lose sight of the fact that he's in the company of an uncommonly gifted writer, whose problems in "Blood Sport" are the regrettable result of over-reaching and empty risk-taking. (p. 5)

Michael Mewshaw, "'Blood Sport'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 19, 1974, pp. 4-5.

Here it is again, the archetypal American story, in freaky dress to suit the blue-jean generation. You know the story I mean. Two men (in this case, father and son) leave the world of women to travel upriver in search of fish, game, danger, masculinity. It's always the same river—the Hassayampa, which rises in northern China, flows through Wisconsin, empties into Croton Lake, N.Y., and provides whatever you're looking for: bear, marlin, mastodons, outlaws, a lot of good nature writing, even the mythic enemy himself. (pp. 111, 114)

What Robert Jones has undertaken [in Blood Sport] is ambitious to the point of foolhardiness. He clearly wants to write yet again the story of the masculine mystique, the discovery of self-reliance by withdrawal from civilization, but sensing that this story can no longer be played straight he gives us a yarn far gone (but not entirely) into self-parody, with all the mythic elements (which usually work on us precisely because they are submerged from direct view) dredged up and kicked around for laughs. A lot of people are going to hate this book simply because of its unstable ambience; the author's refusal to settle for either farce or traditional narrative forces from the reader an uncomfortable range of responses. Still, it's worth it. Jones writes very well, can often be very funny. Probably, given the author's perspective of his material, there was no way the story could be resolved entirely satisfactorily. Let's take it anyway, imperfect, uncomfortable creature that it is. (p. 114)

Peter S. Prescott, "Up the Hassayampa," in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), May 20, 1974, pp. 111, 114.

From what Great or Dismal Swamp in the American male psyche flows the Big Two-Hearted River? Where is the root of the city man's bloody compulsion to prowl the Big Woods and kill the beasts that live there? It is uncertain whether the source of that compulsion is the nature of man or the nature of boy, but it is explored with splendid eccentricity in this energetic first novel [Blood Sport] by Robert F. Jones. (p. 93)

Father and son shoot some grouse and a small mastodon, as the father recalls later, hook a 250-lb. fresh-water marlin, and reject as unworthy of their time and skill a unicorn whose horn is not made of gold.

In summary, such goings-on may sound hopelessly elfin, self-indulgent or absurd. But Jones' surrealist fragments produce in the reader's mind the same edgy excitement and slight disorientation that a suburban householder feels upon entering wild country. It is a delicately calculated trick, but it works. Easy slashes of cruelty cut the airy imagining. "'Try this,' I told my son. I handed him a two-ounce, slightly chewed Yellow Cab with a treble hook mounted on the front bumper…. Inside a minute, he had three wiggling pedestrians on the hook…. One was a girl in a patent-leather suit, hooked lightly through the lip, so we released her…."

On the upper reaches of the Hassayampa, a dark region of the mind, lurks Ratanous, called Ratnose. He is ageless and probably deathless, a one-eyed bandit leader, hunter, torturer, demon and figment. (An anagram of Ratanous, possibly relevant, is "our Satan.") The father has confused memories of skirmishes with Ratnose in the days when he fished the Hassayampa as a young man. His mind is seized and shaken by the mad notion of stalking Ratnose once more, beating him down, killing him….

There is frightful destruction of minor characters, a confrontation and a duel with fly rods and poisoned flies across the vortex of the Hassayampa's most fearsome whirlpool. The hero is hooked and stunned (yet does not die). The villain is snaked into the suckhole and drowns (yet lives).

Half liar, half believer, spinning yarns out of racial memory and the L. L. Bean catalogue, Jones has created the great rarity—a new myth. What is surprising, considering the opportunities he has given himself to waft off into artiness, is that he has also written a good boots-in-the-mud hunting story whose textures are as natural to the touch as the worn stock of an old rifle. (p. E3)

John Skow, "Up the Creek," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1974 by Time, Inc.), May 27, 1974, pp. 93,E3.