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Le Misérable

Photo by Marco Prozzo

He’s 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 he’s 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!" — it’s not like scary mad; it’s 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. "I’m a janitor. I got my shirt on, my iridescent blue shirt that says, ‘Thom, Custodian.’ I look like I’m on the bowling team. So I’m 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 wasn’t 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, I’m going to get my ass in trouble now, a janitor late, that’s some heavy stuff now. So the phone rings, and I think, son of a bitch, so I answer it and it’s Candida and she says, 30 years in the business and this has never happened before, Harper’s just bought ‘I Want To Live.’ In 45 minutes I sold three stories."

He’s telling the story very sweetly, not all ironic and self-deprecating like you’d 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. "It’s not just me. The world is a sad place and I feel sorry for all those people that have to be in it. Why don’t they just call it hell? Then we’d all know we were here for a reason." The dump truck crashes again, and Jones yells some more. "He knows I’m up here, and he knows I hate it." There’s 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 he’s a terrifically photogenic busted hoodlum, his plug-ugly tough guy–writer swagger mitigated by diabetes, epilepsy, major depression and whatever else happens to be wrong at the moment. At this moment, he’s recovering from the removal of a few saliva glands. "The doctor says, all right, he cut it and he pulled out a lima bean, I’m not kidding you — it was pink, it wasn’t 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: It’s 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 he’d like to go), and he’s very tired. "I’m 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 I’m having fun, because I’m laughing and I’m talking and I’m witty, but little do they know what absolute misery . . . I’m 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 they’ll snap." What happens when they do snap, they don’t 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 don’t 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 we’re waiting in a little cubicle. Somebody’s 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!’ I’m thinking: diabetes? Alzheimer’s? And I’m thinking somebody please help this woman, and then I realize it’s just a tape going on in her head. Then somebody comes up and says, ‘Dear, what’s wrong?’ And she says, ‘You know, I have to take a piss.’ So she takes a piss and she’s fine for about 20 minutes, then it’s ‘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, it’s bad enough when you’re healthy in life."

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; there’s 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 isn’t 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 world’s a stage. Judas Iscariot had a job."


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