To win a place for themselves on the precious shelf space of modern supermarket bookstores, new authors must create a compelling fictional world that is uniquely their own. In his 1993 collection, The Pugilist at Rest, Thom Jones seemingly succeeded. A finalist for the National Book Award, with rave reviews that compared Jones’s debut to that of Raymond Carver and called him an “impressive, audacious, powerful new talent,” The Pugilist at Rest promised great things to come. Although Jones, who teaches at the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop, proceeded to work on a novel, a new collection of stories, Cold Snap, marks his first attempt to deliver on that promise.
These ten stories, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Playboy, and Esquire, continue in the same hyper-adrenalized mode as Jones’s earlier pieces, featuring jive-talking Vietnam marines, down-and-out prizefighters, and manic- depressive doctors and writers who seemingly seek pain, dare death, and survive solely on demonic, drug-driven energy.
Jones has suggested that his stories often begin with an overheard line around which he develops a distinctive voice. Then, “like a method actor,” he says, he falls into character and writes “instinctively without a plan or an idea as to what will happen.” In his biographical comments in the 1993 O. Henry Award Prize Stories, he says that he wrote the story “The Pugilist at Rest” in a sort of “controlled ecstatic frenzy.” Similarly, in the contributors’ notes to the 1995 Best American Short Stories, he says that “Way Down Deep in the Jungle” developed in his imagination “as if by magic.” Many of Jones’s stories have this sort of inspired magic about them, as if derived from a nonstop manic monologue that Jones overhears himself delivering and then transcribes.
Jones creates a persona for his possessed writing style in the character Ad Magic, featured in the story “The White Horse” in The Pugilist at Rest and “Quicksand” in Cold Snap. Whereas Ad Magic winds up in India after a seizure of epileptic amnesia in the earlier story, in the newer piece he is a direct-mail wizard in Africa, writing appeal letters for the Global Aid Society hunger effort. Ad Magic, who takes his name from his ability to lapse into a trancelike state and tap into a writing frenzy, is, like other Jones characters, suffering from a variety of pains, ills, and drugs. In this story, his thumb, which has been broken, throbs with pain, and he has malaria—complete with chills, hypnogogic dreams, and “visceral evacuation.” The main fictional motivation for all this distress is not only to create a sense of heightened awareness but also to provide a justification for the inevitable administration of a variety of drugs—a task performed by a Nordic giantess of a doctor named Erika Lars. More pornographic fantasy than real person (“her breasts defied the law of physics”), not only does Erika provide Ad Magic with opium-laced paregoric and fantasy-based sex (making him feel like a “teenager on testosterone” in spite of his Congo malaria and throbbing thumb), but in true superwoman style, she drains his infected thumb with nothing more than a heated paper clip.
Typical of Jones’s physically tormented characters, Ad Magic feels caught in the quicksand of Africa’s heart of darkness, “sinking deeper and deeper,” existentially filled with angst and a sense of absurdity, feeling like a marionette in a Punch and Judy show. Life seems like nothing but a big cartoon. As Ad Magic says at one point, “Life’s a dream.” When he pays a shoe-shine boy fifty dollars, which disgusts the pragmatic Erika, Ad Magic echoes something he said in the earlier “White Horse” story: “It’s only Monopoly money. I don’t have to work for it.”
Although he says, “I thought that by doing the right thing, I could come to terms with life,” Ad Magic is filled with anger at the lies, duplicity, and deceit at the heart of life; however, he gleefully engages in deceit himself by sending small bags of crushed Milk Bones with his appeal letter, telling recipients that it is the only food that poor Africans have to eat. “Quicksand,” whose title comes from a 1960’s song by Martha and the Vandellas, ends much as the earlier Ad Magic story does—with Jones’s fevered persona caught up in one of his frenzied writing seizures and, as usual, going too far.
“Way Down Deep in the Jungle” also takes place in Africa, involving this time the physician Dr. Koestler, a typical Jones character. “Absurdity was a very big part of his life, even as he strove to attain a kind of nobility in spite of it.” Like...
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