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.
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.
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.
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...
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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 “knockout” suggested by some of the advance notice, but like the “brain lightning” experienced by several of his epileptic characters, there are flashes here of memorable and auspicious brilliance.
Three stories narrated by Vietnam vets open the collection; indeed, the first seven of the eleven entries are all told in the first person. Although such sequencing almost invites objection on the grounds of monotony, for the speakers sound very much alike, the voice that does emerge here is singularly compelling. The narrator of the title story is typical. Middle-aged, epileptic from one too many head blows in a Marine Corps boxing ring, and now facing brain surgery, he recalls the battlefield death of his lieutenant in a voice...
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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 survived more than 150 fights in the boxing ring and graduated from the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop with his originality intact. He gave this autobiographically reminiscent fiction, his first, the title of the statue of Theogenes, ‘the greatest of gladiators,’ who fought at the time of Homer, ‘the greatest poet who ever lived’. Like his literary he-men predecessors, Jones evidently regards fighting and writing as comparable competitive sports. To the death? So be it, man.
In the time of Theogenes and Homer, Jones writes, ‘as now, violence, suffering and the cheapness of life were the rule’. He depicts recent violence, suffering and the cheapness of life in gruesome detail in the title story and in...
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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 makes 'em vulnerable. Like the ailing triceratops in “Jurassic Park,” there's nothing more moving than a weepy incapacitated brute. It's our only way to get close to them, and gosh darn it, monsters need love too. Jones' gallery of black sheep includes a diabetic, an epileptic, a malaria sufferer, a manic depressive Jesus freak on lithium, and literature's favorite, a selection of drunks. Is that a great formula or what? Yes, it must be great, the world knows better than I do.
Taking major, lonely exception to a story collection that's been raved about in print and among your smartest reading friends is the kind of thing that makes you feel not only wrong but insane. What's my problem? It's not that Jones takes advantage...
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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 and features their songs and their enduring youth-culture cachet throughout the book, but at the same time he evokes the aspects of their legacy that the Hollywood version downplayed.
The preferred narrator throughout The Pugilist at Rest speaks in the first person and, according to one reviewer, keeps revealing to the reader some “ambiguous moral lesion” and the tension between “a licensed id and a fragile ego” (T. Solotaroff 256). In one story, “Break on Through,” which takes its title from a Doors song, the narrator reminisces about the reconnaissance platoon he served with in Vietnam. The platoon nicknamed itself after the same Doors song. The narrator focuses on a psychopath, a latecomer to the...
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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 was a journalist, reporting on the Washington state legislature. When budget cuts cost him that job, he wrote a novel (unpublished) and collected unemployment. Then he worked for eleven years as a janitor at the high school in Lacey, Washington, where his wife was the librarian.
Jones says now that being a janitor was a good job for him because it left his mind free, mostly for reading. But he also talks about the sense of desperation that sent him, finally, back to writing: “I thought the only way out [of this professional impasse] was to write. I told myself, you said you wanted to be a writer all your life, well, now's the time to do it, you're running out of time.” Within a year his stories began to appear in The...
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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 “windowpane” acid, hash and cocaine (“an overrated drug, no better than a triple espresso”), while the merely domestically doom-struck rely on “codeine #4s”, morphine tablets chased with Xanax, or else “Extra-Strength Excedrins, a couple of Advils, and a deuce of Canadian 222s”, washed down with heroic, tongue-blackening quantities of Pepto-Bismol. If diabetic or suffering from mental health problems, however, characters can be relied on to forget or refuse their medication. Heavyweight pessimists—Nietzsche, Sartre, Beckett and, most insistently, Schopenhauer—are invoked with varying degrees of jauntiness; and death, despair and the devil are recurring preoccupations.
Six years after The Pugilist at...
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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 his fiction is the master's degree in creative writing he received at the famous University of Iowa writer's workshop. It is not something that sits comfortably with the man-on-the-wild-side-of-things myth.
On the famous cover of Walt Whitman's epic Song of Myself is a drawing of an American working man that represented how Whitman wanted to be seen. The photograph on the inside back cover of Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine has a similar resonance: an atmospheric portrait of Jones with a boxer dog. Jones has his visible hand wrapped in cloth, the typical preparation of a boxer's hands before a fight. In the background are two pictures of fighters. So it follows that this man is hard and serious....
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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 of action to its clinical indications. These and other details are often given as facts to be memorized and then reproduced on fill-in-the-bubble, multiple-choice examinations. In the process students learn to master “the latest, most authoritative drug information possible,” to quote the Physicians' Desk Reference (1). Lithium alters sodium transport in nerve and muscle cells and effects a shift toward intraneuronal metabolism of catecholamines. The volume of distribution of Mefloquine is approximately 20 1/kg; the in vivo half-life is from 36 to 2 hours. Such an approach is thought an adequate apprenticeship for a career in which these students will be asked to make the diagnosis, write the appropriate prescription, and move on...
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Gerrig, Richard J. and Deborah A. Prentice. “Notes On Audience Response.” In Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, edited by David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, pp. 388-403. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.
Includes The Pugilist at Rest in a discussion of audience response.
Giles, Jeff. “He Could Be a Contenda.” Newsweek (21 June 1993): 64.
Offers a laudatory review of The Pugilist at Rest.
Hawthorne, Mary. “With Attitude.” Times Literary Supplement (4 March 1994): 21.
Provides a positive assessment of The Pugilist at Rest.
Horvath, Brooke. Review of The Pugilist at Rest, by Thom Jones. Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, no. 3 (fall 1993): 224-25.
Offers a favorable review of The Pugilist at Rest.
Locklin, Gerald. Review of Cold Snap: Stories, by Thom Jones. Review of Contemporary Fiction 34, no. 1 (winter 1997): 122-23.
Provides a positive assessment of Cold Snap.
Miller, Adrienne. “Books.” GQ (June 1995): 50.
Offers a favorable review of Cold Snap.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Their Bodies, Their Selves.” New York Times Book Review (4 June 1995): 8....
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