Photo by Marco Prozzo
Hes having some kind of insulin reaction to travel, the junk food and lack of sleep, the solution to which is to sit out on the balcony and drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. As everyone knows, people who smoke Kools are crazy and out of control, but Thom Jones, former smoker of Kools, has mellowed into Marlboros. He used to be a boxer, and an ad copywriter, and a janitor, maybe he was always a writer (he says he burned three bad novels), but now hes just an author on a book tour.
So when he yells off the balcony at the dump truck making a head-splitting, migraine-caliber thumping crashing noise down below "Hey, motherfucker!" its not like scary mad; its more the mature angry yell of someone fully engaged in a worthy battle. Or war. Everything environmental seems to irritate the hell out of him, but this screaming at dump trucks is more epiphanic than threatening. One suspects that Jones lives in a fugue state a great deal of the time.
He recalls the day his agent, Candida Donadio, called to say The New Yorker accepted a short story. "Im a janitor. I got my shirt on, my iridescent blue shirt that says, Thom, Custodian. I look like Im on the bowling team. So Im packing my lunch going, Oh . . . oh." He heaves a weak, feminine sigh. "Oh, cool. Then all of a sudden I realized I was happy and then suddenly I wasnt happy, so I figured, that was good for about two minutes. Then the phone rings again." Another sale, to Esquire, this good for five minutes of happiness. "And then I realized I was going to be late for work, so I run out the door thinking, oh, man, Im going to get my ass in trouble now, a janitor late, thats some heavy stuff now. So the phone rings, and I think, son of a bitch, so I answer it and its Candida and she says, 30 years in the business and this has never happened before, Harpers just bought I Want To Live. In 45 minutes I sold three stories."
Hes telling the story very sweetly, not all ironic and self-deprecating like youd think. "It was in the afternoon, a little warm glow overcame me, a little halo, and I was Thom the little angel! I was pushing my broom, thinking, ah, this is great! But at least 50 or 60 really horrible things happened that day that made me want to kill myself, too. And that was the best day of my life. It was awful, let me tell you. I hated every minute of it." This only glancingly coy. "Even as a kid, I never felt right. I always felt kind of sick and sad," he says. "Its not just me. The world is a sad place and I feel sorry for all those people that have to be in it. Why dont they just call it hell? Then wed all know we were here for a reason." The dump truck crashes again, and Jones yells some more. "He knows Im up here, and he knows I hate it." Theres zero differentiation between God and the dump-truck driver.
Jones is on tour to promote Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine, his third book of short stories. His first, The Pugilist at Rest, was a big deal because it was very good, as was his follow-up, Cold Snap, and Thom was a big deal because hes a terrifically photogenic busted hoodlum, his plug-ugly tough guywriter swagger mitigated by diabetes, epilepsy, major depression and whatever else happens to be wrong at the moment. At this moment, hes recovering from the removal of a few saliva glands. "The doctor says, all right, he cut it and he pulled out a lima bean, Im not kidding you it was pink, it wasnt green. Then he found a bunch of other ones, and he pulled those out, too." He talks faintly punch-drunk, but you get used to it after the first couple of anecdotes: Its a rope-a-dope, the disarming drawl.
The book tour comes on the heels of a trip to Tasmania for National Geographic Adventurer (they asked him where hed like to go), and hes very tired. "Im so strung out I could die," he says. "I was reading my story last night in Seattle, and I got halfway through it and thought, oh, motherfucker, this is never going to end . . . Everybody was digging it and laughing and having a great time, and I thought, you know, they probably think that Im having fun, because Im laughing and Im talking and Im witty, but little do they know what absolute misery . . . Im in the seventh pit of hell."
Jones has staked out delirious exhaustion as his literary turf. His stories are about boxers, Vietnam vets, janitors, manic-depressive doctors, Schopenhauer-reading cancer patients. "A lot of my writing is about God-seeking," he says. "I like to put my characters in a whole lot of trouble, so theyll snap." What happens when they do snap, they dont all have epiphanies, except maybe little inconclusive ones.
Mostly, they kind of semirecover; they live to snap again. As one character in Cold Snap remarks, on the verge of deliberately dipping himself into a boiling vat of nasty experience: "I dont like awful. But awful/ awful can sometimes be very interesting."
Unimpressed by the everyday awfulness of literary success, Jones fairly lights up when he starts to illustrate the literary quality of insanity with a story about taking his wife to the emergency room for a migraine: "So were waiting in a little cubicle. Somebodys having a heart attack, and this [other] woman has been sitting there for four hours saying, Oh! Oh! Please kill me! Oh, please kill me! Im thinking: diabetes? Alzheimers? And Im thinking somebody please help this woman, and then I realize its just a tape going on in her head. Then somebody comes up and says, Dear, whats wrong? And she says, You know, I have to take a piss. So she takes a piss and shes fine for about 20 minutes, then its Oh, please somebody kill me! Then I saw this mask of horror on her face." He pauses, captivated by the memory of that face. "I mean, its bad enough when youre healthy in life."
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In Jones literary landscape, all life unfolds much like a chronic illness. He applies his pessimism with rigor and discipline, like a strong dose of chemotherapy; theres a risk factor, and only a very limited prognosis for success, but the goal of the torture is always a cure. Or at least remission.
Ondine, the Vietnam vet in the new story "Fields of Purple Forever," responds to the critical mass of memory by becoming a long-distance swimmer, crossing the English Channel, the Straits of Gibraltar, seeking out ever wider and rougher bodies of water, always swimming alone, at night, driven by escape, fear, maybe revulsion at first, until the swimming becomes a purely poetic compulsion. Also a fair portrait of a writer at work.
There was an epiphany in Jones career, something that came to him in the midst of an epileptic seizure, about the time he quit drinking and started writing in earnest. "Out the window, the trees were just exploding with life and ecstasy. It was a glorious feeling. It was a very positive yes to existence. I also noticed that it occurred in the molecular structure, because I could see the wood of the table was talking to me. My dog was [looking at me] like Fine, you finally get it now, right? It isnt like God created us, but there was a creative necessity." The way he says it, he means it as a play on tragic necessity.
"Only Shakespeare got it," he says. "All the worlds a stage. Judas Iscariot had a job."