The Pugilist at Rest

These stories have been hailed as “instant classics” of the contemporary short story. And this is true: half of the stories that make up THE PUGILIST AT REST resonate with a power and a vision of the world that one rarely finds in a first book.

The title of the collection is ironic, for if one thing is certain, it is this: the pugilists in this book are rarely, if ever, at rest. Instead, they are constantly fighting not only to survive, but to live: to make sense out of the chaos that has become an everyday way of life.

Jones’s vision has been called—it has been criticized as— pessimistic. In fact, Jones is a realist, writing about a world too often ignored: a place inhabited by those who live out their catatonic lives sitting off in some corner of a room in a budget-cut psych ward, drooling like dogs.

There are weak spots to be found in this debut. Stories such as “Wipeout” and “Mosquitoes”—as well as other stories wherein Jones branches off into settings other than the duel battlefields of the boxing ring and Vietnam—lack the punch-to-the-gut buzz one comes to expect from a writer who has a prose style as powerful as Thom Jones. But all in all, the stories found in part 1—“The Pugilist at Rest,” “Break on Through” and “Black Lights”—as well as the two pieces that close out the collection—“A White Horse” and “Rocket Man”—stand as examples of what a short story can achieve: moments that may potentially change the reader’s perception of the world. Thom Jones has peeled back his skin, giving those willing to risk a look a firsthand glance into a heart that keeps beating, a breath at a time, even though there are voices telling it to stop.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. July 25, 1993, XIV, p.6.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 1, 1993, p.2.

The Nation. CCLVII, September 6, 1993, p.254.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, June 13, 1993, p.7.

Newsweek. CXXI, June 21, 1993, p.64.

Ploughshares. XIX, Fall, 1993, p.241.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, April 12, 1993, p.47.

The Review of Contemporary Fiction. XIII, Fall, 1993, p.224.

Time. CXLI, June 28, 1993, p.72.

The Washington Post. June 29, 1993, p. D4.

The Pugilist at Rest

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Franz Kafka once posed this question: “If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?… A book,” he then insisted, “must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” On most occasions, a first book by a little-known writer will announce itself with quiet courtesy, a firm handshake perhaps, but rarely will it “wake us up with a blow.” The Pugilist at Rest, the debut collection of stories from Thom Jones, lives up to Kafka’s standard of what a book, a work of art, ought to do.

The book is arranged into four parts. In part 1, Jones returns to the hazy “purple fields” of Vietnam and then plunges into the nightmarish aftermath that lingers, decades later, long after the narrators have come home. At the time of their tellings, Jones’s first-person narrators-whose experiences resemble Jones’s own-are still painfully unhinged and damaged by what they have witnessed, haunted by unforgettable glimpses into the gaping mouth of the Vietnam War beast.

The title story, “The Pugilist at Rest,” winner of a 1993 0. Henry Award, is a powerful portrayal of a man, a former Marine and former boxer-like Jones himself-who has been beaten, bruised, and bloodied, a self-bludgeoned fighter who refuses to stay down for the ten-count, no matter what. If there is a code to live by in Thom Jones’s world, it is this: Human beings are all beasts. In the words of his narrator, a self-proclaimed “ground- pounder” who “pulled three tours” of duty in Vietnam:

“There was a reservoir of malice, poison and vicious sadism in my soul I wanted some payback…. I grieved… grieved for myself and what I had lost. I committed unspeakable crimes and got medals for it.”

The telling of “The Pugilist at Rest” is triggered by a discovery rooted in the objective world: Cleaning his attic on Memorial Day, the protagonist comes upon his old dress uniform. Out of the commonplace, though, Jones transports readers to the jungles-turned-battlefields of Vietnam, where what is real is sometimes blurred to assume the satanic mask of a drug-induced hallucination.

I had seen the apparition of a man, cloaked in a trench coat, emerge from the fog, like Humphrey Bogart in a felt hat, tan Burberry, pipe-in-mouth until he lifted his head and showed the face of Lucifer. I remember watching dumbstruck as he removed a doeskin glove to reveal an eagle’s talon rather than a hand.

The exhuming of that “dress-blue uniform” leads to memories not as soothing as, say, some of Marcel Proust’s bedtime musings. instead, in Jones’s hands, the flashbacks rise up out of a past that resists remembering (though, of course, memory has a mind all its own). “A pair of Phantom F-4s came in very low with delayed-action high-explosive rounds and napalm. I could feel the almost unbearable heat waves…. I can still feel it and smell it to this day.” What makes Jones such a powerful storyteller is his ability to articulate the sufferings of his narrators at the time that they finally find the words for what has never been spoken before. A conversational immediacy established between Jones and his invisible reader lends these stories a sense of urgency-as if the words themselves were singular acts of faith.

The Vietnam experience has been written about before-written about with both power and beauty, a type of beauty that can only rise up out of grief-by such first-rate novelists as Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried (1990) and Richard Currey, a hardly read writer whose first novel, Fatal Light (1988), is a prose elegy innocuously disguised as a book. Jones also writes, however, about another Vietnam-a Vietnam of the spirit, of a memory that does not know its own end. To live through events as spiteful and horrific as war, Jones seems to suggest, is never again to know what it means to come home. Yet back home, Vietnam lives on: in Veterans Administration hospitals, in those white-walled hallways where narcotically numbed veterans wander around in epileptic fugues while others rip through the fingertip-tattered pages of The Portable Nietzsche in search of the meaning to all the world’s suffering. Not to speak about the unspeakable crimes to which they have stood witness would be an unspeakable crime in itself. Jones’s tellers-perhaps even Jones himself-want to leave something behind. The words left in their wake are...

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Historical Context

Two young men in a boxing match Published by Gale Cengage

Vietnam War

In the summer of 1966, when the narrator in "The Pugilist at Rest" was attending boot camp in San Diego, the...

(The entire section is 937 words.)

Style and Technique

“The Pugilist at Rest” uses startling juxtapositions to create a memorable effect on the reader. The story opens humorously, with the stories of how tough boot camp is, as a drill sergeant crudely mocks Hey Baby’s love letter to a girlfriend who will soon dump him. Jorgeson’s artistic yearnings and his wry comments on the Marines are soon contrasted with the narrator’s brutal assault on Hey Baby.

Next the narrator carefully describes how beautiful the Marine dress uniform is, but that calm moment matches a brutal moment of war. During his first battle, the narrator feverishly fumbles with cleaning his rifle, dropping the same pieces over and over, in a bumbling dark comedy, as he describes the terrifying...

(The entire section is 382 words.)

Literary Style

Imagery and Symbolism

The narrator frequently brings attention to one image: the blue eyes of his friend Jorgeson. There...

(The entire section is 383 words.)

Compare and Contrast

  • 1960s: In 1963, the drug sodium valproate (VPA) is found to be effective in controlling epileptic seizures. In 1968, the...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the types of brain injury caused by boxing. How many boxers have died over the last decade directly as a result of injuries...

(The entire section is 220 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

  • Jones's Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine: Stories (1999) is his third collection of stories. Like The Pugilist at Rest, the...

(The entire section is 211 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading


Hawthorne, Mary, "With Attitude," in Times Literary Supplement, March 4, 1994, p. 21.

Johnson, Tyler D., "In Person," in Austin Chronicle, Vol. 18, No. 29,

Jones, Thom, The Pugilist at Rest: Stories, Little, Brown, 1993, pp. 3-27, 82, 85.

Review of The Pugilist at Rest, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 15, April 12, 1993, p. 47.

Shakespeare, William, King Lear, edited by Kenneth Muir, Methuen, 1972, act 4, scene 7, p. 178.

Skow, John, Review of The Pugilist at Rest,...

(The entire section is 348 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. July 25, 1993, XIV, p.6.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 1, 1993, p.2.

The Nation. CCLVII, September 6, 1993, p.254.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, June 13, 1993, p.7.

Newsweek. CXXI, June 21, 1993, p.64.

Ploughshares. XIX, Fall, 1993, p.241.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, April 12, 1993, p.47.

The Review of Contemporary Fiction. XIII, Fall, 1993, p.224.


(The entire section is 61 words.)