Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine
Little, Brown and Company
THE BOXING RING, the loony bin, and especially the Vietnam thing--it's all getting a bit old for Thom Jones. A frequent New Yorker contributor and eternal prize-winner/contender, Jones made the map with his first collection of stories, The Pugilist at Rest; his sophomore outing, Cold Snap, confirmed his status as one of our best, a writer who could manage to spin yarns that were cinematically simple, tonally edgy, and emotionally winsome. Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine, his third book of stories, shows Jones at a crossroads: While offering ample evidence of Jones's narrative skills, it casts some doubt on the range of his creative powers.
Take the 'Nam stuff. There are three tales here that feature Sgt. Ondine, a memorable character first introduced in The Pugilist at Rest (petroleum jelly also figures prominently in all three, but that's another story). In "The Roadrunner," Jones perfectly captures the tension that descends on a group of young Marines during their last 96 hours of "liberty" before they ship out, a respite that begins with orgiastic whoring in Tijuana--"nothing short of Mexican Caligula"--and ends with the immolation of the story's titular bird, stirred from its clump of brush and chased to exhaustion. Jones's insights into the war are keen, and in the next story, "A Run Through the Jungle," well, let's just repeat the sage words of one of the characters: "What goes around comes around." But by the third of Ondine's appearances in "Fields of Purple Forever," the setting has become stale. Jones's penchant for affecting dialect doesn't help, be it Ondine's black vernacular here, Kid Dynamite's Rocky-inflected braggadocio in the title story, or Matthew's pill-popping slackerese in "40, Still at Home." These characters, trapped inside their own heads and histories, and unaware of their testosterone-addled outlooks, are ultimately among Jones's less-distinguished creations.
Not so, however, with the individuals who populate the majority of these stories. In "Tarantula," a Canadian Ph.D. candidate with the unwieldy moniker of John Harold Hammermeister lands a job as a junior vice-principal in a Detroit high school. Hammermeister imagines that Donald Sutherland will play him in the movie version of his Pulitzer-worthy dissertation, but instead becomes "a mere pedestrian in the heart of the Motor City." Jones depicts his blame-it-on-hubris fall from a perfectly calculated distance. The tragedy of Frankie Dell in "I Love You, Sophie Western" is even grittier but just as affecting. Frankie is a high-school student with a lithium prescription, a movie-theater job, and a permanent boner; his humiliation by his peers is only the prelude to the more gruesome lesson he learns in the projection booth.
Jones stretches furthest in what may be the book's best story, "Daddy's Girl"; here, a 92-year-old woman recounts her and her sisters' lives with a seemingly easy yet well-earned grace. Devoid of machismo, these stories offer up a more complex vision. Even the rambling "You Cheated, You Lied" is successful; though replete with broken noses, neurological impairments, and kinky sex, it's a parable about love. That Jones can get to the heart of this tricky emotion is just cause for praise.
Thom Jones reads at 8 p.m. Wednesday, January 27 at the Hungry Mind ; (651) 699-0587.