Study Guide

Thom Jones

Thom Jones Essay - Critical Essays

Jones, Thom

Introduction

Thom Jones 1945-

American short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Jones's short fiction career through 2000.

Jones's stories have been recognized for their pessimism, straightforward prose, and tough characters. In much of his work, frequent references to the philosophy of both Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer are made. In addition, many of the stories he writes include strong autobiographical elements, such as protagonists who serve in the military or box.

Biographical Information

Jones was born on January 26, 1945, in Aurora, Illinois. His father was a professional fighter, which seems to have had a large influence on Jones's life. He received a bachelor's degree from the University in Washington in 1970 and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa in 1973. Prior to attending the University of Washington, Jones married Sally Williams, to whom he is still married. He also served in the Marine Corps, where he had an amateur career as a boxer. However, his boxing and military career ended when he received a brain injury in the ring, which resulted in his suffering from epilepsy. Although Jones received his M.F.A. in 1973, he didn't work steadily as a writer for quite some time; instead, he worked as a janitor in a school where his wife was the librarian. The Pugilist at Rest (1993), although his first book, immediately gained him a reputation as an excellent writer. He has since published two more collections of short stories and has taught at the program that helped produce him, the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Jones's reputation as a short fiction writer rests on three collections of short stories. His first, The Pugilist at Rest, brought him considerable praise. This work concerns embattled individuals struggling with what the narrator of the title story calls the “violence, suffering, and the cheapness of life.” Such stories as “Break On Through” and “The Black Lights” focus on Vietnam veterans and former prizefighters trying to cope with the psychological and physical wounds they have both inflicted and suffered. Other embattled protagonists in the collection include an elderly woman dying of cancer, an amnesia victim wandering around Bombay after surviving a car crash, a macho doctor trying to liberate his henpecked brother, and a retarded janitor fighting the social system and his unfaithful ex-wife. His second collection, Cold Snap (1995), was also well-received and its stories considered just as powerful and gritty as those in his first publication. The stories in this work deal with individuals who have worked in Africa with a fictional organization known as Global Aid. In the title story a burnt-out doctor who has been dismissed by Global Aid returns to the United States where he takes his institutionalized sister on an outing. Depressed by the blatant suffering he has seen in Africa and the less obvious suffering of everyday life in America, he tries both lithium and morphine, unsuccessfully, to relieve his pain. Finally he stumbles upon Russian Roulette, a game where he stakes his life on the laws of chance, as the only thing that can counter his depression. In “Quicksand” a public relations expert for Global Aid, who has narrowly escaped the massacres in Rwanda, finds relief in his own kind of Russian Roulette by engaging in unsafe sex. Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine (1999), addresses many of the same issues as Jones's previous two books, although it did not receive equivalent critical attention. The title story of the book deals with an amateur boxer who is fighting mainly to impress other people: his girlfriend and his stepfather. Other tales involve a group of Marines about to leave for Vietnam who take a wild R & R in Tijuana, a hypochondriac who torments his dying mother, and a disturbed assistant principal who keeps a live tarantula on his desk.

Critical Reception

Some critics have noticed an obsessive quality in Jones's characters. Others have emphasized the machismo expressed in the stories and have questioned the frequent appearance of the philosophy of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Jones's ability to add a comedic touch to depressing scenarios without degrading the sympathy that one should feel for his hard-pressed characters has been admired by many. He has been noted to have a tendency to take seemingly hopeless situations and turn them into a source of wisdom. In recognition of his skill as an author, he was awarded the Best American Short Stories Award in 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1995. In addition, he received the O. Henry Award and a National Book Award nomination in 1993 for The Pugilist at Rest. From 1994 to 1995 he was a Guggenheim Fellow.

Principal Works

The Pugilist at Rest: Stories 1993

Cold Snap: Stories 1995

Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine: Stories 1999

Criticism

Ted Solotaroff (review date 6-13 September 1993)

SOURCE: Solotaroff, Ted. “Semper Fi, Nietzsche.” Nation 257, no. 7 (6-13 September 1993): 254-57.

[In the following review, Solotaroff offers a positive review of The Pugilist at Rest.]

The hangups of the life load the opportunities of the writer. Load as with guns, and load as with dice. There are several interactive furies in the writing persona of Thom Jones, the much-vaunted new fiction writer; propelled by his talent for dramatizing them, they make this collection of stories [The Pugilist at Rest] seem like a three-car collision in the Indy 500. Lots of power and lots of wreckage pile up as each situation races along its violent or otherwise “wired” premise to its baleful destination.

Jackknifed at the front is the Vietnam experience. As told in three stories, in his own words and reflections, they center on the training, recon operations and post-combat crackup of a Marine hero, champion boxer and romantic philosopher: i.e., a deep brute. A victim of his own bravado, he expresses, often inadvertently, the special destructiveness that hovered over the war itself and that lives on in a half-life of psychological and moral radiation. A recent article in Rolling Stone estimated that at least a tenth of the men who fought in Vietnam are now homeless and that half suffer from chronic seizures of violence and despair known euphemistically as post-traumatic stress disorder. Along with the walking wounded is the righteous brutality, the Ramboism that the Vietnam War, both in our conduct and defeat, continues to reinforce. (This point is lost upon the idiot moralist at The Wall Street Journal who blamed the civil disobedience of the anti-war movement for the murder of David Gunn, the Florida obstetrician who performed abortions, by a member of Operation Rescue. Yet whose legacy is Operation Rescue if not that of the Moral Majority and the other cultural warriors of the right? Weren't any of the mangers of The Wall Street Journal listening to Patrick Buchanan and his shock troops at the Republican Convention?)

Which is not to say that Thom Jones is a fictionist of the radical right. Though at times he comes close. As another of his protagonists, a surgeon, explains himself: “We are diluting and degrading the species by letting the weaklings live. I am guilty of this more than anyone. I took the Hippocratic oath and vowed to patch up junkies, prostitutes, and violent criminals and send them back out on the streets to wreak more havoc and mayhem on themselves and on others.” Even in his less truculent stories, Jones's recurrent narrator shows pretty much the same macho elitism, though sensitized by a heroic wound, a Jake Barnes who still has his balls but suffers from epileptic seizures—as well as an ambiguous moral lesion. The title story is emblematic of the “attitude” of the others.

Jones's self-hero is not given a name in “The Pugilist at Rest,” but in the following story about combat experience he is called “Hollywood,” which I'll use here for convenience and, to some extent, for appropriateness. Hollywood preps for fighting in a people's war—perhaps the main reason the war was so anomalous and so morally destructive for Americans—by fracturing the skull of a fellow recruit in boot camp. The event is more chilling in its matter-of-factness than in its performance. His platoon is running to the drill field, rifles held at port arms:

I saw Hey Baby give Jorgeson a nasty shove with his M-14. Hey Baby was a large and fairly tough young man who liked to displace his aggressive impulses on Jorgeson, but he wasn't as big or as tough as I. … I set my body so that I could put everything into it, and with one deft stroke I hammered him in the temple with the sharp edge of the steel butt plate of my M-14. … I was a skilled boxer, and I knew the temple was a vulnerable spot; the human skull is otherwise hard and durable, except at its base. There was a sickening crunch, and Hey Baby dropped into the ice plants along the side of the company street. … To tell you the truth, I wouldn't have cared in the least if I had killed him. … Jorgeson was my buddy, and I wasn't going to stand still and let someone fuck him over.

Behind the all-but-lethal excess of the payback lurks a suggestive conflict. Jorgeson's unusually beautiful and powerful “cobalt-blue eyes” as well as his beatnik ways both attract and bug Hollywood, who is drilling himself in the Semper Fi attitude, and he resolves this ambivalence by an act of violence whose magnitude affirms both his protectiveness and his toughness. “Hey Baby was a large and fairly tough young man who liked to displace his aggressive impulses on Jorgeson, but he wasn't as big or as tough as I.” The style is the man. In this assertion of butch psychology, complete with the clinical jargon and fussy grammar, lies much room for narcissistic havoc.

Jones is not unsubtle. “The Pugilist at Rest” begins with Hey Baby being humiliated after he is caught writing a letter to his girlfriend in the midst of a lecture on the muzzle velocity of the M-14. So there is a kind of chain reaction of conflict between the male self as “hard-core” and human that continues to explode throughout the story. For reasons...

(The entire section is 2209 words.)

Kevin Miller (review date fall 1993)

SOURCE: Miller, Kevin. Review of The Pugilist at Rest, by Thom Jones. Ploughshares 19, nos. 2-3 (fall 1993): 241-42.

[In the following review, Miller gives a lukewarm review of The Pugilist at Rest.]

Already commercially successful, with half the entries previously in The New Yorker, Harper's, and Esquire, Thom Jones's debut collection is best described as utterly uncompromising. From his gallery of hard-assed, hard-headed, hard-luck, or simply hard cases, to the way these stories are written and sequenced, Jones demands much of the reader—and more often than not gives much in return. The Pugilist at Rest isn't quite the...

(The entire section is 683 words.)

Patrick Skene Catling (review date 26 March 1994)

SOURCE: Catling, Patrick Skene. “Fight the Bad Fight.” Spectator 272, no. 8646 (26 March 1994): 36.

[In the following review, Catling provides a positive review of The Pugilist at Rest.]

Testosterone gushes abundantly through these short stories about death in war, deep-sea diving and disease [in The Pugilist at Rest]. Thom Jones has inherited the gung-ho tradition of Hemingway and Mailer—and improved on it. They posed as heavyweights. Jones is a light-heavyweight. Occasional flashes of ribald humour illuminate the machismo. He demonstrates that Rambo has feet of clay.

A Marine Corps veteran of Nam, Jones himself is a pugilist at rest. He...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

Benjamin Weissman (review date 6 August 1995)

SOURCE: Weissman, Benjamin. “The Stuff of Excess: If Thom Jones is the Current Short-Story God, What's the Form Coming To?” Los Angeles Times Book Review (6 August 1995): 3, 15.

[In the following review, Weissman offers a negative review of Cold Snap.]

One thing I'm certain of is that I've got to be totally wrong about my difficulties with Thom Jones. He's one of the most popular story writers in the country right now, not for doing anything new (if contemporary fiction ain't broke, why fix it?), but for reviving an all-American genre, macho fiction. Tough-guy stories with a twist. The secret: Give all the ruffians or their partners some type of disorder. That...

(The entire section is 1447 words.)

James D. Bloom (essay date fall 1995)

SOURCE: Bloom, James D. “Cultural Capital and Contrarian Investing: Robert Stone, Thom Jones, and Others.” Contemporary Fiction 36, no. 3 (fall 1995): 490-507.

[In the following essay, Bloom explores the role of music in Jones's stories.]

Both the appeal of the Doors to Anne Browne and many others and the discrediting implications of their legacy that concern [Robert] Stone reverberate in Thom Jones's 1993 story sequence The Pugilist at Rest, which Stone honors in selecting the title story for The Best American Short Stories, 1992. Jones seems as attuned as Oliver Stone to the idolatry that has surrounded the Doors since Jim Morrison's death in 1971...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

Thom Jones and Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver (interview date 1998)

SOURCE: Jones, Thom, and Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver. “Thom Jones: A Way of Feeling Better.” In Passion and Craft: Conversations with Notable Writers, edited by Bonnie Lyons and Bill Oliver, pp. 112-27. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

[In the following interview, Jones discusses his life and his writing and how the former influences the latter.]

Though he attended the Iowa Writers Workshop in the early 1970s, Thom Jones worked only sporadically as a fiction writer for the next twenty years. Like Ad Magic, one of his recurring characters, he wrote advertising copy and traveled in Africa and India, designing campaigns for hunger relief. Later he...

(The entire section is 7726 words.)

Christopher Tayler (review date 19 February 1999)

SOURCE: Tayler, Christopher. “Dancing with Despair.” Times Literary Supplement (19 February 1999): 22.

[In the following review, Tayler provides a positive review of Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine.]

Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine is Thom Jones's third foray into his familiar territory of mental illness, bodily trauma, boxing and “the Nam”. Here, relationships tend not to work out (“she unloaded four shots from a 38-caliber revolver into my thoracic cavity, hit me in the knee and creased my ear with the sixth shot”), and the prospects of employment are grim. Apart from violence, sex, profanity and alcohol, the more gregarious characters turn to...

(The entire section is 809 words.)

Matt Barnard (review date 26 February 1999)

SOURCE: Barnard, Matt. “Boxing Clever.” New Statesman (26 February 1999): 57.

[In the following review, Barnard offers a lukewarm review of Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine.]

Thom Jones belongs to the American tradition in which the writer and the writing are inseparable. Every review or profile or television interview with the writer tends to recount the facts of his life like a mantra: that Jones is a Vietnam vet, a boxer, an epileptic who spent several years in psychiatric wards, a drop-out who worked as a high-school janitor.

Most of these experiences inform Jones' stories; and yet the one autobiographical subject that does not make it into...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Jonathan M. Metzl (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Metzl, Jonathan M. “Signifying Medication in Thom Jones's ‘Superman My Son.’” In Teaching Literature and Medicine, edited by Anne Hunsaker Hawkins and Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, pp. 338-43. New York: Modern Language Association, 2000.

[In the following essay, Metzl presents theoretical aspects of Jones's short story “Superman My Son” to examine pharmacology.]

Medications are frequently presented in medical education in a fixed and denotative manner. In pharmacology courses, for example, students are responsible for digesting massive amounts of information concerning every aspect of a medication's profile, ranging from its half-life to its mechanism...

(The entire section is 1903 words.)