rev. of The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones

Issue #61
Fall 1993

The Pugilist at Rest 
Stories by Thom Jones. Little, Brown and Company, $18.95 cloth. Reviewed by Kevin Miller.

Already commercially successful, with half the entries previously in
The New Yorker, Harper’s, and
Esquire, Thom Jones’s debut collection is best described as utterly uncompromising. From his gallery of hard-assed, hard-headed, hard-luck, or simply
hard cases, to the way these stories are written and sequenced, Jones demands much of the reader and more often than not gives much in return.
The Pugilist at Rest isn’t quite the “knockout” suggested by some of the advance notice, but like the “brain lightning” experienced by several of his epileptic characters, there are flashes here of memorable and auspicious brilliance.

Three stories narrated by Vietnam vets open the collection; indeed, the first seven of the eleven entries are all told in the first person. Although such sequencing almost invites objection on the grounds of monotony, for the speakers sound very much alike, the voice that does emerge here is singularly compelling. The narrator of the title story is typical. Middle-aged, epileptic from one too many head blows in a Marine Corps boxing ring, and now facing brain surgery, he recalls the battlefield death of his lieutenant in a voice that’s direct, ironic, and almost preternaturally focused on the scene’s absurd horror: “It [a rocket] took off his whole arm, and for an instant I could see the white bone and ligaments of his shoulder, and then red flesh of muscle tissue, looking very much like fresh prime beef, well-marbled and encased in a thin layer of yellowish-white adipose tissue . . . he stayed up on one knee with his remaining arm extended out to the enemy, palm upward in the soulful, heartrending
gesture of Al Jolson doing a rendition of ‘Mammy.’ ” By the next page, the same narrator is quoting Schopenhauer-philosophy being a favorite compass for Jones’s tough guys as they try to reason their way through such unreasonable lives.

“Sometimes a bad beating could do a fellow a world of good,” opines another of Jones’s narrators. And with “philosophy” like that, there’s plenty of machismo at play in
The Pugilist at Rest machismo that, in the words of several of his narrators, occasionally crosses over into misogyny. The library lizard narrator of “Wipeout,” for example, is also conversant with the great thinkers, although he appears to find the likes of Kant chiefly useful in seducing and exploiting women (“The scorpion stings, it can’t help itself”). Similarly, in “Unchain My Heart,” the collection’s sole female narrator sounds as though she could be Mr. Wipeout’s dream girl. Speaking of her lover, this New York City magazine editor pleads, “I need him to fuck my brains out.”

Irritating as that is, you’ve got to admire Jones’s courage in dishing up first-person story after story featuring characters who are sometimes downright repugnant. He doesn’t moralize. He doesn’t stack the deck. He simply lets his people talk. Make of them what you will.

At the same time, any suspicions about the
author’s character will surely be allayed by the appearance, near the end of the book, of “I Want to Live,” an engrossing and sensitive piece in the third person, though stream-of-consciousness in effect about a middle-aged woman dying of cancer. Two more third-person keepers make for a strong finish: “A White Horse” and “Rocket Man.” In the former, the most memorable story in the collection, an American advertising man, on a kind of epileptic bender, rescues a diseased horse from a Bombay beach, while the latter approaches a Richard Yates-like pathos in its depiction of a boxer and his alcoholic trainer.

That Jones’s stories are apparently drawn from his life isn’t especially newsworthy. What is, is the urgency and relentlessness, perhaps because of Jones’s life, with which
The Pugilist at Rest is written. That in itself sets this collection head and shoulders above most recent American debuts. Jones’s characters may give out and they may give you trouble, but what redeems them all is that they never give in.

Kevin Miller is at work on a collection of stories. He teaches at Emerson College.