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