(Short Story Criticism)

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.