Thom Jones’s The Pugilist at Rest

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This is my favorite book of the year, bar none. A few authors have left me disturbed after reading (Carver, Tobias Wolfe, John Darnielle) but Thom Jones literally brought tears to my eyes. The stories in here hit on lots of shared territory -Vietnam and boxing, especially- and three of them are even told in first person by the same narrator, with key phrases repeated. Jones is a master of the first person voice, speaking authentically: as young men in war, an old woman at the end of her life, a young professional woman in the midst of a love affair, and an alpha male, middle-aged surgeon.

There are eleven stories in this book and they are all great. I’ve never had that experience with a collection of stories before. They are anything but homogeneous, but they share a kind of precision. The stories are full of raw energy and emotion, but they have been tuned as meticulously as a Ducati race bike. The titular story is a great opener and was published by The New Yorker; the collection won the O. Henry prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

This is where I start to have mixed feelings, not about the book, but about the way the best literature functions in our lives, and about how fleeting its presence seems to be. Here is a book that has moved me as much as anything else I’ve ever read, a book that made me go online and order the other two books Jones has published as soon as I had finished, a book that I started re-reading within days of finishing. It’s out of print and most people -even literary types- have no idea who Thom Jones is (or they assume you are talking about the Welsh crooner) and maybe this has something to do with the medium; short stories alone are a hard to build a literary reputation on. If part of the appeal of creating something of literary merit stems from the desire to create something that outlives oneself, the obscurity of something this good only 25 years after publication is sobering. But if the appeal lies in creating something with the power to move people and to make them think about their lives and the lives of their friends in new and powerful ways then Jones is successful, irrespective of the current limited awareness of his book. I just wish more people would take the time to look through back catalogues and used book stores. There is some great literature out there, between the shitty fondue cookbooks. Don’t let it slip out of our hands, and tell people when you find gold.

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