After three well-received collections of stories, Thom Jones’s own story is well known: a hitch in the Marines in the 1960’s, a stint at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the 1970’s, failure to write and sell stories in the then- popular Raymond Carver mode, and ten years as a high school janitor. Then, one day he saw a successful old friend on television and, in envy and despair, sat down to write “The Pugilist at Rest” in his own manic voice; the story was picked out of the slush pile atThe New Yorker and won an O. Henry Award in 1993. Jones once sold three stories in a day, and his first book The Pugilist at Rest (1993) was a finalist for the National Book Award. It makes for a good story, and Jones has ridden the wave of it, hailed as, according to rhapsodic reviewers of that book and his second, Cold Snap (1995), “a major talent with great promise.”
One has a right, then, to expect that the “great promise” would be fulfilled by his third book. However, what Jones delivers in Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine is, to quote an old rock-and-roll lyric (one of Jones’s favorite devices), “the same old song.” It is a generous book in length, by the standards of short-story collections, at more than three hundred pages; as Jones said in an interview, he likes to give his readers their money’s worth. However, it is not such a generous fulfillment of Jones’s “great promise.” The themes and voices in most of the stories are much the same as in the first two collections. Although that in itself is not a crime—after all, a writer must be allowed to weave his or her own unique figure in the carpet—overall these stories are not as strong as those in his previous books. Granted, that weakness may be due to the fact that what was a unique voice in 1993—a hyped-up, dangerous, wild-man alternative to the well-made stories cranked out by so many Carver- copying M.F.A. graduates—now seems a bit strained and overdone, mainly because Jones himself has done it so many times. Perhaps the book is so generous in length because Jones loves the sound of his own voice and thus never seems to get where he seems to be going.
The other problem with Jones’s stories in this collection is that his characters are not very likable; character flaws are forgivable if they are interesting, but most of Jones’s characters are selfish, self-indulgent, and meaninglessly mean. The most obnoxious is Matthew, an out-of-work man who, as the title indicates, is “40, Still at Home,” and whose idea of a “commendable feat” is to sleep for twenty-two out of twenty-four hours. When he finds his cancer-racked mother’s dead body in bed, he searches her safe and is as delighted to find a prescription for morphine as he is to find her money. To avoid probate, he zips her in a sleeping bag, puts her in the freezer, takes some morphine and hops back in bed, feeling “absolutely, positively, right-on-the-money cap-ee- tal.” This is supposed to be comic, but it comes off as quintessential adolescent meanness.
In “Tarantula,” thirty-eight pages are devoted to making life hell for John Harold Hammermeister, an ambitious, admittedly not very likable, 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 he meets his comeuppance from a janitor who reads Joseph Conrad and who stabs the tarantula with a pencil. Then, with the help of another janitor, he puts duct tape over Hammermeister’s eyes and mouth and beats his legs, knees, and elbows with a baseball bat. These events are portrayed with great satiric fun, with former janitor Jones self-indulgently enjoying himself.
The Vietnam stories in this collection are predictable and seem to be excuses for brutality; they do not add anything to an understanding of that complex conflict and the men who were victimized by it. “The Roadrunner” is an account of Marines stationed at Oceanside, California, going to Tijuana for obvious and not interesting encounters with prostitutes, concluding with one of the men pouring gasoline over a roadrunner and setting it afire. While the act suggests the kind of cruelty and barbarism required to go to Vietnam and do the dirty work to be done there, and echoes the images of that war in which many were immolated by napalm, one must ask whether the story illuminates those atrocities or merely trivializes them.
Payback time, a favorite Jones plot ploy, takes place in the next story, “A Run Through the Jungle,” complete with the usual Vietnam War story references to “slopes,” “klicks,” “toe-poppers,” and “dinks.” Although the plot focuses on the efforts of...
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