A teaching mentor once told me that while “B” essays tend to be “B” essays from start to finish without exceptions, “A” essays are often occasionally “C” essays or even “D” essays or “F” essays. The reason, of course, is that when a student is working at the top of his game, he will bump up against ideas that he doesn’t understand fully or that he doesn’t have the maturity to really explore. As a whole, the essay will be excellent, but on occasion – maybe for a whole paragraph, or maybe just for a sentence or two – the essay will be clunky and awkward and just plain ill-advised, because the writer has encountered intellectual terrain that he is not prepared to address.
I found this advice very helpful when I worked with student writers, and it’s equally true of Thom Jones’ 1993 debut collection of short stories, The Pugilist at Rest. Most of the stories in this collection are excellent, and I am going to try to spend most of this review somewhat reluctantly explaining why. I say “somewhat reluctantly” because criticizing and mocking a less-than-perfect story is generally more fun than praising excellent ones. While there is one story in this collection that deserves a little mockery (it’s called “Unchain My Heart” – hee hee), overall the collection is fantastic. I read it with my jaw slack, and I can’t wait to read more of this author’s work.
The title story is the first in the collection, and it’s one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. Like many of the characters in this book, the protagonist is a Marine and a boxer. The story opens in boot camp with some fairly standard-issue drill instructor anecdotes, but soon the focus narrows to the protagonist’s relationships with two of his fellow recruits: Hey Baby – a nickname acknowledging a letter to his girlfriend that the drill instructor confiscated and read out loud – and Jorgeson, the protagonist’s friend who starts out a Kerouac devotee who wants to be a surfer but later becomes a gung-ho Marine and persuades the narrator to join Force Recon with him. The story focuses on the subtle changes in the men during and after boot camp, especially after their drill instructor gives an inspirational speech about the sacred lifelong bond they would have with their fellow Marines. Shortly after that speech, Hey Baby shoves Jorgeson – who still is not putting his full effort into his Marine training – and the narrator runs up behind Hey Baby and slams the blunt end of his rifle into Hey Baby’s temple. “My idea before this had simply been to lay my hands on him, but now I had blood in my eye. I was a skilled boxer, and I knew the temple was a vulnerable spot; the human skull is hard and durable, except at its base. There was a sickening crunch, and Hey Baby dropped into the ice plants along the side of the company street” (8). None of the recruits tell the drill instructor who assaulted Hey Baby, and the protagonist never gets in trouble. Sometime after Hey Baby is hospitalized with a skull fracture, the rumor circulates that he regained consciousness, and for a while the narrator assumes he will soon be confronted about the assault. But nothing ever happens – which is “good” in the sense that the narrator is never punished, but also bad in the sense that – presumably – Hey Baby never does achieve the consciousness needed to identify his attacker.
The best stories in this collection deal with similar situations. Violence is often at the forefront: violence in war, the regulated violence of the boxing ring, and unsanctioned violence of the sort the narrator inflicts on Hey Baby. The long-term physical effects of violence are at the forefront as well. By the end of this first story, the narrator has been injured himself in a boxing tournament, and he suffers from temporal-lobe epilepsy and is heavily medicated. His sister visits him and tries to talk him into getting a new kind of surgery (“It’s not a lobotomy,” she insists ), and the story ends when he agrees to try it.
But there’s another element to this story, and to almost every other story in the collection: the great thinkers of Western civilization. This story features Dostoevsky and St. Paul and a legendary ancient Greek boxer named Theogenes, who is the subject of a sculpture called “The Pugilist at Rest.” More than two pages of text are devoted to the sculpture: “His head is turned as if he were looking over his shoulder – as if someone had just whispered something to him. It is in this that the “art” of the sculpture is conveyed to the viewer. Could it be that someone had just summoned him to the arena? There is a slight look of befuddlement on his face, but there is no trace of fear. There is an air about him that suggests that he is eager to proceed and does not wish to cause anyone any trouble or cause a delay, even though his life will soon be on the line. Besides the deformities on his noble face, there is also the suggestion of weariness and philosophical resignation. All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Exactly! He knew this more than two thousand years before Shakespeare penned the lines” (19). This sort of art history lesson is, more than anything, what makes this book different from other excellent collections of short stories. I resented it a little at first because my fiction teachers were always so adamant that every last word of a short story has to serve the character and the plot, and I felt like a younger sibling whining Why does THOM get to put Schopenhauer in his stories and I don’t? (There is a small chance that the 22 year-old me was not integrating her allusions quite as shrewdly or as gracefully as Jones does, of course).
This story moves forward in time, without flashbacks, from boot camp to Vietnam to the boxing match where the protagonist was injured and then to his life years later as a semi-invalid at the mercy of his seizures. At the same time, though the protagonist’s interior life – not so much his memories, which are present too, but his intellectual life, his reading life – almost serves as an additional setting in the story. The world of Dostoevsky and Schopenhauer is like a room the protagonist goes to when no one else is around to bother him or when he needs to escape his own reality. Almost every story in the collection is in the first person, so the long interludes about philosophy and history come not from an omniscient narrator but from the complicated, gritty protagonists who have earned their philosophy degrees the hard way.
This story, and many others in the collection, had a strong impact on me. I walked around in a bit of a daze while I was reading this book. In this opening story, the protagonist’s injuries are in the same parts of his brain as my own brain injuries; they are just more severe. I felt a strong connection to this character for that reason, and my whole body went cold when I saw a medication that I myself take in a list of the ones the protagonist takes. This is neither here nor there; you don’t need to have a brain injury in order to appreciate the story. Alongside the details on brain injuries, the first-person narration and the presence of all the allusions to literature and history and philosophy made me feel an extremely strong personal connection to the stories in this collection. I recommend it highly and can’t wait to read more of this author’s work.