If you want to read about nice, polite, mentally stable people, look elsewhere. Thom Jones, with his third story collection, Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine, proves to be a master at talking about life's seamy side. At no point in this book is one not surprised by its twists and turns. This is a dangerous thrillride throughout, with so many risks taken that Jones must be considered the Evel Knievel of literature.
Recurring themes include boxing, the Vietnam War, drugs and sex -- and most of these stories contain at least two of these elements. Jones is able to seamlessly weave sex and violence, without exploiting either subject in a gratuitous manner. Thus, his stories can be simultaneously sexy and horrifying, creating a literary dissonance which is riveting. This book can be judged by its cover, which features a photograph of a very breast-like boxing bell, complete with nipple.
Jones' literary cocktail is best illustrated in the comparatively lengthy final story, "You Cheated, You Lied," a love story about an epileptic young man and a schizophrenic young woman who experience the highest highs and the lowest lows. This story is at turns erotic, nightmarish, thrilling and bizarre; it is written with bold imagination.
Jones' work well proves the difference between good short-story writing and good novel writing. Jones has not yet published a novel, and perhaps he never will. His style is perfect for short stories. Each of his stories sustains a brief, intensive energy level which would burn too quickly if stretched to novel length; whereas novels are the sun, Jones' stories are supernovas. They die quickly, leaving a beautiful corpse.
As intense as these stories are, they are also very funny and filled with delightful imagery. In "Mouses," a sadistic engineer with a Napoleon complex sees a rat trap "big enough to snap a Shetland pony." A Marine who is on leave in the story "Roadrunner" describes what he finds the morning after an exceptionally rough night: "... and when I looked up in the mirror I saw a red and blue USMC bulldog tattooed on my left deltoid. Above the bulldog was the name 'Shab.' To this day, I have no idea what it means. It's right up there with Stonehenge and Easter Island in the mystery department."
Like many of Jones' characters, this Marine experiences an episode in which he totally loses control. That Jones is able to have such total control in expressing such lack of control is his gift. But the characters' lack of control is not without meaning. Ultimately, "Roadrunner" is an allegory about what the United States did in Vietnam, and about what it did to us. Its ending is perfectly simple and absolutely sobering.
Stories like "Tarantula," the hilariously dark tale of John Harold Hammermeister whose deserved misadventures reach Kafkaesque proportions, show that no characters are too horrible for Jones, nor are there any tortures too severe for them. Another real winner is Matt, the star of "40, Still at Home," a man who makes John Kennedy Toole's Ignatius Reilly look like a subject from John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. Matt is so depressed that he thinks he will have to find some way to muster more energy before he's able to kill himself.
"A Midnight Clear" describes an insane asylum where the keepers are as crazy as the inmates. Though this concept has been seen before, it has rarely been put to such good use. Again, the magic is in the details. For example, when we meet crazy Cousin Eustace, he is busy caulking a baseboard with a bottle of ketchup, trying to keep out the gas which he knows is seeping in.
The title story is filled with evocative and kinetic language, deceptively simple, but with so much life. "Kid Dynamite . . . threw his shoulder into the side door of the garage, and stepped inside." Jones could have said that Kid Dynamite opened the garage and walked in, but he instead depicts a boxer with pent-up energy and frustration getting ready for a big fight. Every detail has meaning. Boxing is ultimately a universal metaphor, as would be expected from such great literature.
Jones suffers a few missteps. "A Run Through the Jungle," though a good exercise in describing battle and its amphetamine-driven violence, adds little to the genre, and "Fields of Purple Forever" tries to do so much that it fails, a disjointed mess bogged down by too much jargon and dialect.
But that a literary risk-taker like Jones is able to succeed so often, creating such dangerous, impolite literature so far removed from the clichs of every genre, is a tribute to the man's genius. Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine is an excellent collection, thrilling and lovely.