The raw and exhilarating prose of American Thom Jones

by Anna Rogers / 14 March, 2019
A unique and astonishing voice in American literature: Thom Jones. Photo/Supplied

Thom Jones. Photo/Supplied

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The characters may be dark and damaged, but a posthumous selection of prose by a short-story master is astonishing.

You don’t so much read Thom Jones as climb aboard his train – or some more violently careering form of transport – and cling on desperately. This posthumous collection of 26 short stories is an assault, an avalanche of raw, grim, savage and exhilarating writing, from a man who was prey to the illness, depression, addiction and alcoholism that also beset so many of his characters. This is a dark, dark world, inhabited by damaged Vietnam vets, cancer sufferers, dedicated consumers of pills (brand names, dosages and effects are often meticulously delineated), crazy fantasists, the lost and the disappointed. And yet there is also huge energy and invention, and wild, fearless, black humour.

Jones is perhaps best known for his Vietnam stories, particularly The Pugilist at Rest, which are so fiercely realistic that it is difficult to believe he never made it to the war. He was discharged from the army after a harsh beating by a fellow soldier left him with temporal lobe epilepsy. You’re in the jungle, on the parade ground, inhaling the terror, witnessing the appalling wounds. Jones gives no quarter, but as a writer he remains in complete control of the chaos.

Most of the protagonists in these stories are men, and what a strange but vivid lot they are – the whining, jobless depressive who puts his mother in the freezer when she dies after yet another ferocious argument, the vain and terrible Hammermeister who rules the high school of which he is vice-principal but then implodes, wannabe boxer and Sonny Liston admirer Kid Dynamite …

But there are women in Night Train, too, credible, hurt women written about with insight and sympathy. Outstanding is the dying subject of I Want to Live!, justifiably one of Jones’ most admired stories. This is what terminal cancer actually looks like – the mad moments of hope, the inescapable knowledge of what must happen, the indignity and fear. And there’s no sentiment at the end: “There wasn’t any tunnel or white light or any of that. She just … died.” Memorable, too, is the 92-year-old narrator of Daddy’s Girl, with her affecting and confronting account of her sister Tootie’s life.

Don’t look in Night Train for polished, subtly shaped stories with neatly clever endings. There’s a lack of sophistication, an unfiltered quality, about Jones’ writing, although you would be wrong to mistake this for any lack of ability or experience. He favours the unremitting narrative, he sometimes even commits the “sin” of explaining when another author would show, but his unvarnished, often overwhelming prose and his extraordinary linguistic riffs have enormous power.

There is beauty, too, and hope, even if it’s transient: “I’m thinking that I’m gonna be all right, and in the meantime what can be better 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?”

If you don’t have a reasonably strong stomach, and can’t cope with ubiquitous bad language and frank sexual detail, you probably shouldn’t read Night Train. And you may need to pause quite often to take a breath and return to a saner world. But if you don’t take a ride with Jones, you’ll miss out on a unique and astonishing voice in American literature.

NIGHT TRAIN, by Thom Jones (Faber, $32.99)

This article was first published in the March 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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