Short stories by Thom Jones
(Back Bay/Little, Brown: 1996, paper)
Reviewed by Rob Trucks
The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 1, September 1996 (pp. 92-94).
© 1996 The Journal of African Travel-Writing
Thom Jones's The Pugilist at Rest appeared in the early summer of 1993 and received almost unparalleled attention for a first collection of short stories. For many, Jones--a relatively unknown forty-seven-year-old former janitor when The New Yorker published the first of these stories--was a story himself, the embodiment of perseverance. By summer's end The Pugilist at Rest had received featured reviews in such mass-market periodicals as the New York Times Book Review, USA Today, and Time, and the author was credited with the advent of "The New Machoism." Stories were anthologized in Best American Short Stories. The collection was nominated for the National Book Award.
Critics likened Jones's work to that of Hemingway and Carver, and the comparisons were not inaccurate. Jones's prose is often spare, and pessimism hovers like fog in an English novel over each set of characters. The protagonists of The Pugilist at Rest are predominately male, manly men, either Marines or boxers and sometimes both. They fight because that is what they do, it is what they know. Ultimately, however, they will not succeed and will be left to deal with the challenge to endure. Jones's Marines are apolitical Vietnam vets, men who suffer watching their fellow soldiers surprisingly die and who discover invincibility is a myth. His boxers are able to climb to a certain level of accomplishment before being knocked on their collective consciousness by stronger fighters warding off their attempts to ascend. Not unlike the Carver hero--a past, present, or undecided alcoholic--or Hemingway's terminally frustrated Jake Barnes, Jones's characters are more defeated by the knowled ge of their limitations, the knowledge that life does not always live up to its own promise, than by any physical force. Though physical force looms large and cannot be discounted, it is never the real battle.
A transformation occurs within the Jones hero of Cold Snap, the author's second collection. On page one, the protagonist of the title story says, "Well, it's cold for a change and I guess that's not so bad, because all the fleas and mosquitoes will freeze, and also because any change is something, and maybe it will help snap me out of this bleak post-Africa depression." Rather than operating as a literal or figurative fighter, the protagonist is a runner running away.
Though the Jones hero longs for any change, his favorite destination in this book is Africa. Jones's Africa is neither the paradise nor the proving ground once immortalized by Hemingway. It is rather a setting for escape. When that escape does not deliver its assumed promise, the Jones hero finds disillusionment settling like dust in a potato bin. Jones's characters return stateside when they realize that even Africa, the most remote, basic land they can name, will not and cannot provide the escap e from themselves they desperately desire.
The first four stories of Cold Snap feature characters who are living in or who have just returned from Africa. Even "Pot Shack," a later story that has no direct ties to Africa, yields a protagonist who, after joining the Marines, longs for the French Foreign Legion. "The thought of posting in Sidi be Abbes, Algeria," he says, "had a certain romance to it." Romance is not a reality, however. The reality of Jones's Africa is the danger of hippos, "a bloodbath in Rwanda and now Somalia again," the importance of several cans of King Oscar sardines to the food supply.
Many Cold Snap characters have medical experience, though few are physicians one would feel comfortable with in an examination room. More than one has gone to Africa after losing a license in the United States. More than one returns to America after being unceremoniously relieved of his African duties. Those men who are not, or were not, licensed physicians, cling to illness and disease as a philatelist clings to stamps. It is the hobby of choice in Thom Jones's world. "AIDS was raging throu gh out the continent now," Jones writes in "Ooh Ooh Baby," "but a war could kill faster than that virus. Well, maybe not. Now, there were fast viruses that turned you into goo and had you bleeding from every orifice three days after incubation. Made AIDS look like a cakewalk."
Since Africa, once experienced, is for most no longer an escape, remedies for the Jones hero become more pharmaceutical in nature. "I must confess I lost my medical license in the States for substance abuse," the narrator of the title story says. "Anyhow, hypomania is a good thing in Africa."
The protagonists of Cold Snap combat self-inflicted pain rather than a tangible, animated opponent across the ring or battle lines. The outcome, however, is never in doubt. Though the Jones hero has come full circle, from America to Africa and back again, he is only more experienced, not more knowledgeable. He is still attempting to find a shortcut or out. "Africans were good about pain," one narrator discovers, "handled it a lot better than Americans."