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.)