In his short story collection Cold Snap, Thom Jones thanks friends and the anti-depressant drugs Effexor and Elavil in the acknowledgements for ‘expanding the narrow spectrum of happiness available to such gloomy hypochondriacal existentialists as myself.’
Sadly, to my mind Jones’s published output is a similarly narrow spectrum: a short story writer, his repertoire is largely limited to three collections – The Pugilist at Rest (1993), Cold Snap (1995) and Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine (1999).
But in those six years and three books, regardless of when they were actually written, the stories gave life to one of the most distinctive voices in fiction in the last 30 years.
I was lucky to make direct contact with Jones in 2005, when I was writing a piece on him for a book The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction. I tried to reach him via the publisher of his collections, but with no luck. Unlike many modern writers then, he didn’t have a website, nor was there much published information on him or about him online anywhere.
I’d read he was a janitor, and approached the school one of the collections said he worked at, and with his permission someone there was good enough to share his email address with me.
I fired through a few questions I wanted to ask, and got back a 3000-word, kind of stream of consciousness life story, a section of which got published in the Rough Guide book.
‘I don’t get into trouble anymore but have spent more time in jail than any other Guggenheim fellow,’ he said. ‘I probably took more drugs than Elvis but I’ve been off alcohol and dope for 20 years.’
Jones was an amateur boxer with over 150 fights to his name, and also a marine, and in correspondence he wrote exactly as he does in the stories.
His first story, The Pugilist at Rest, was published in The New Yorker in 1991. It’s narrated by an ex-marine, guilty of unspeakable crimes in Vietnam, who later suffers a head injury in a boxing match. He recognises his own capacity for violence in the form a Roman statue of a world-weary gladiator.
As debuts go, it’s a rip snorter, and sadly there are lots of autobiographical elements in it: Jones has temporal lobe epilepsy and takes anti-depressants after a military boxing match caused him to have fits.
His first published collection carried the same name, and as well as boxers and soldiers told tales of amoral lovers, cancer sufferers and deep sea divers, lurching between ecstatic highs and crushing lows.
Over the next six years, Jones had a further seven stories published in the New Yorker, and in several other top literary mags, and they appeared in two further short story collections, before things went a bit quiet.
His second collection Cold Snap was about doctors working in Africa under extreme conditions, and his third Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine returns to boxing gyms and psychiatric wards.
He told me that he still writes occasional stories for magazine and that one day they’ll add up to a book. “I just try to think of all the most embarrassing stuff I’ve ever done… for my next collection, I want A-grade material cover to cover.”
There’s Cannonball: Love Sinks, published in 2004 in the Washington Post, about a boy recounting one summer as a lifeguard and his first experiences of love and death. It’s very much in keeping with his 90s output.
And in 2011 he published Bomb Shelter Noel about a diabetic girl, published in Playboy magazine. I’ve got it on order, and look forward to explaining to my wife when it arrives that it’s for the high quality fiction.
He’s 70 now, and his short story output has definitely slowed in the last dozen years, if not stopped completely, no doubt due to the health problems he detailed at length when he kindly replied to my email.
I’ve seen a Facebook profile I’m sure is his, and he’s still writing great sentences, but you won’t find a spine with his name on in any A-Z author bookshelves in any bookshop these days and that’s a real shame. Still, I keep hoping for that next collection of A-grade material.