Characters that pack a punch

Review of Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine, by Thom Jones
Weekend Financial Times, March 6/7, 1999

Those of us who occasionally suffer protracted bouts of spiritual or psychic despair (or fancy that we do) are familiar with the false epiphany. It is that moment—inspired by a pretty face, a monumental ruin, by the bleak romance of a run-down industrial waterfront at dawn—when the haze burns off briefly and it seems we are one short step away from happiness, from prosperity, from whatever it is we imagine we lack. Mountains become molehills, plans are made, the reasons for our hesitation forgotten. Until they come smashing back with the force of a good right hook, and we are left gasping for breath, flat on our backs on the canvas.

It is a world in which the most crushing blows of death, disease or depression can be erased by a sexy girl blowing into an overheated room, and it is emphatically the world of Thom Jones’s third collection, Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine. In 12 stories, Jones regains his vista over the land of poor choices, and, though his hold is at times tenuous, manages to keep his grip on the elusive fringe of Raymond Carver’s mantle.

From the rock-hard Vietnam vet who turns to Channel swimming for kicks, to the epileptic misfit working the line at the cornflake factory, Jones’s characters consistently seek out the most elusive of salvations. In “Mouses”, the hump-backed dwarf who has lost his job as an engineer turns his skills to a series of cruel experiments on the helpless mice that plague his apartment. The narrator of “My Heroic Mythic Journey”, a struggling boxer who manages a few years of success as the featherweight champion of the world, falls for a cocaine-addled blond who ends his career by firing five rounds from a .38-calibre revolver into his chest. The boxer lives to fight again, but his matches now end in ignominious defeat, until he is left hoping sports writers never find him for their where-are-they-now stories.

Though not all the pieces in Sonny Liston manage to state their purpose so clearly, Jones at his best still packs quite a punch. The brief “Daddy’s Girl” (which features a relief from the author’s usual parade of pugilists and Marines), is as powerful as any recent short fiction, and bests even the narrator of Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” for unwarranted suffering.

Though most of Jones’s characters, like Carver’s, are plagued with almost lethal inertia and bad judgment, Junk, who narrates the story, finds herself in Job’s familiar, leaky boat. But the realisation that Junk will never descend into indignant biblical doubt provided at least this reader with a moment of cloud-parting joy.

Job, of course, achieved enlightenment, unlike the poor souls of Jones’s stories. It is the holes in our lives with which Jones is most concerned, and to explore the way we fill them he has again turned to the diseased and shell-shocked cases that populated his first two books.

If the bravado with which his characters fill their empty spaces seems, at times, less sufficiently explored than in his earlier stories, the exuberance of Jones’s writing has remained undiminished, and chances are taken in Sonny Liston that the younger writer shied away from.

The title story even manages a poignancy not found in Jones’s earlier work. The coming-of-age tale leaves a troubled boxer called Kid Dynamite on the brink of adulthood and “the real world”, a territory into which Jones has rarely ventured in his writing. As in most of his stories, the machismo that is so pivotal to the boy and the story is transformed from an end in itself into a vehicle for deliverance. So it is through most of Jones’s work: there are awful mistakes to be made, and we can learn from them or not. Mostly we do not, according to Jones. But even then, it’s good to have the fog lift for a moment and enjoy that adrenalised, optimistic vision of God.