A melan­choly, funny-as-hell voice for the maimed

Thom Jones, a late Amer­i­can great, avoided the wor­ried well and com­pla­cent as suit­able sub­jects

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - AMY BLOOM This ex­tract is taken from Amy Bloom’s in­tro­duc­tion to Night Train: New and Se­lected Sto­ries by Thom Jones( Faber& Faber). Amy Bloom’s lat­est work is White Houses

The two en­e­mies of hu­man hap­pi­ness are pain and bore­dom. Just re­mem­ber, once you’re over the hill you be­gin to pick up speed. – from Thom’s favourite guy: Schopen­hauer

Thom Jones’s lies – his sen­tences and sto­ries – were more per­sua­sive, more im­por­tant and more deeply felt than most men’s truths. “I would work hard to free the truth that’s within me and make it art,” he said in one in­ter­view. No lie there.

Thom and I met the night be­fore the Na­tional Book Awards, when all the fi­nal­ists got to read for five min­utes (firm time limit, firm looks) from their nom­i­nated books. Thom and I were newly pub­lished writ­ers – as we both said, “Yeah, new, not young” – and we clung to each other that night like sib­ling wall­flow­ers: smart-ass, awk­ward and wise enough to be sur­prised. When peo­ple were kind to us (tap or sparkling?) we looked at them like dogs brought home from the pound might, and when Annie Proulx swept by us the next night to claim the Na­tional Book Award (“Thank you, I de­served it,” she said), we just pulled our coats and our clunky shoes in a bit more, so as not to get in her way.

But the night be­fore, Thom slayed. He read the first five min­utes of I Want to Live! from The Pugilist at Rest, a story that would later be se­lected by John Updike for his Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries of the Cen­tury an­thol­ogy. It’s a mono­logue by an older wo­man, dy­ing of can­cer. She loves her painkiller­s and car­toons, and there is true love be­tween her and her con­cerned, hap­less son-in-law, check­ing in on her. I ac­tu­ally saw peo­ple in the au­di­ence laugh and then cry and then shake their heads at their roller-coaster feel­ings and at the drama of hu­man be­ings and our ridicu­lous, in­domitable will to live. When­ever I re-read that story, to re­mind my­self how to build char­ac­ter, how to wield voice, I see Thom read­ing and I see the damp faces be­fore him.

My own other, most per­sonal favourite is Cold Snap, the ti­tle story of Thom’s se­cond col­lec­tion. Be­fore I was a writer, I’d had some other jobs, not as a jan­i­tor or a copy­writer, like Thom had, but mostly as a bar­tender and so­cial worker. My sym­pa­thy for the burned-out helper can­not be ex­ag­ger­ated.

Richard, our hero in Cold Snap , is a hot mess, as is of­ten the case for the Jones pro­tag­o­nist. Thom avoided the “wor­ried well” and the com­pla­cent as suit­able sub­jects al­most as as­sid­u­ously as he avoided the lucky and the mea­sured op­ti­mist. Richard has a quintessen­tially Jone­sian ter­ri­ble out­look. “I can fuck up a wet dream with my at­ti­tude,” the man says and no reader would ar­gue. He has got­ten him­self sent home from Africa, with malaria and mi­nus his med­i­cal li­cence, be­cause he’s one inch shy of be­ing a junkie and peo­ple have no­ticed. (In Jones’s fic­tion, not only are char­ac­ters free to make bad choices, but they also suf­fer the con­se­quences. There’s no room for bravado and not much for free­wheel­ing self-de­cep­tion.) Richard, be­ing a mess, has cut his thumb and it’s giv­ing him no end of trou­ble, and he has to – he has to – get some pain pills, as so many of Jones’s char­ac­ters do. His sis­ter, Su­san, is a schiz­o­phrenic, which is not as cen­tral to this story as the self-in­flicted lo­bot­omy she en­dured when she tried to kill her­self.

Richard shows off for us by play­ing Rus­sian roulette. He claims that not dy­ing has made him eu­phoric, like Van Gogh, mi­nus the slic­ing of the ear. He doesn’t die. But he doesn’t fool Thom Jones, and there­fore he doesn’t fool us. The man is wild with grief and the only help on the hori­zon, the un­likely and lovely and dam­aged cav­alry to the res­cue, is his sis­ter. Su­san tells Richard that she dreams of a happy life for them, driv­ing a ’67 Dodge around heaven, and af­ter the telling of the dream, in their real life to­gether, they have an elab­o­rate lunch (“the best lit­tle lunch of a life­time”) in Richard’s car. They lis­ten to Ded­i­cated to the One I Love on the ra­dio. “What can be bet­ter,” Richard says, “than a cool, breezy, fra­grant day, rain-splat­ter di­a­monds on the wrap­around wind­shield of a Ninety-eight Olds with a view of cherry trees bloom­ing in the light spring rain?”

I love this story more than I can say. It is peace and trou­ble, love and grief, doom and the tiny flicker of hope, if one can bear to have it.

There are plenty of crit­ics who have raved about Thom’s Viet­nam sto­ries, ex­cep­tional feats of imag­i­na­tion from a man who, while a Marine him­self, wasn’t ac­tu­ally there, hav­ing been pre­vented from de­ploy­ing af­ter suf­fer­ing tem­po­ral-lobe epilepsy when he was soundly beaten in a box­ing match. (Box­ing, like that war, is a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion through­out his fic­tion.) Each time his col­lec­tions came out, the re­views were py­rotech­nic: for Thom’s ir­re­sistible voice, his brav­ery, his au­dac­ity and grit, and his knack for un­nerv­ing cheer in the face of catas­tro­phe. In short, for his “amaz­ing blend of knowl­edge, skill, ter­ror, and re­lease”, ac­cord­ing to Robert Stone, who seems to me to have been a fair judge of these things.

Thom’s sen­tences have crack and clar­ity. His para­graphs build to sto­ries and places that you hadn’t thought to go, with peo­ple you hadn’t known you could recog­nise, and even love. “Give Baker a com­pass and a topo­graph­i­cal map,” says the sol­dier nar­ra­tor of Pot Shack, “and one could bear wit­ness to – in­deed, be­come a part of – the elu­sive, semi-mys­ti­cal Tao of mil­i­tary science. Such were Baker’s lead­er­ship skills that his ev­ery thought, word and ac­tion could pro­pel a lesser per­son­al­ity into self­less, right ac­tions in the ser­vice of the Big Green Ma­chine.”

You will see all this, Thom Jones’s whole wide, deep, ram­bunc­tious, grief-stricken and melan­choly range of gifts, in the 26 sto­ries gath­ered in these pages. Thom Jones is, as a char­ac­ter de­scribes his man Schopen­hauer, an “au­gust seeker of truth”. He was a friend to the friend­less, a strong voice for the maimed, funny as hell, and from the first to the last, a great Amer­i­can writer.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: MARCO PREZZO

Thom Jones, 26/01/1945-14/10/2016: a friend to the friend­less.

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