Debut tales of two-fisted battles with life

July 11, 1993|By Judith Wynn

THE PUGILIST AT REST

Thom Jones

Little, Brown

! 240 pages, $18.95

Thom Jones has been a soldier, a boxer, an advertising writer and a janitor. "The Pugilist at Rest," the first book by this Washington state writer, is an exciting collection of lean, hard-hitting, short fiction about Marines, boxers and other men and women at grips with war, sex and disease.

In the title story, a decorated Vietnam veteran recalls his first battle. Did his slaughtered best friend do all the work and leave him the glory? Head injuries sustained in a Marine base boxing match have given him epilepsy -- "the sacred disease" -- like Dostoevski and Joan of Arc: "Each of these in a terrible flash of brain lightening was able to pierce the murky veil of illusion which is spread over all things."

Piercing that murky, workaday view is the driving force behind these 11 strife-ridden, often grimly comic stories. The brooding specters of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer loom above the fray to lend meaning and self-renewal to some of the most beleaguered characters this side of Robert Stone and Larry Heinemann. "We are like lambs in a field," wrote Schopenhauer, "disporting ourselves under the eye of the butcher, who chooses out first one and then another for his prey."

Who was this Schopenhauer anyway? "A crank, a guy with an axe to grind," thinks the nameless cancer patient in "I Want to Live!" this collection's most heart-rending story. Unexpectedly, a childhood memory of a scrappy pet rooster on her parents' farm puts the dying woman in touch with the ruthless old German's beloved "life force" and boosts her over the final barrier.

Pain and imminent death open the doors to super-rational perception for Mr. Jones' characters. In "Rocket Man," a boxer's eyes are savaged by his opponent until he gets a miraculous "third wind" that carries him to victory. "Unchain My Heart," convincingly narrated from a woman's viewpoint, tells how an ambitious editor plays hooky from her job to go deep-sea diving with her ultra-macho lover. Back at work and subsequently dumped by the diver, our heroine faces vengeful colleagues and an unwanted pregnancy. How she pulls out a victory is a tribute to human resilience.

Not all the characters are winners. The rowdy emergency room surgeon of "Mosquitoes" futilely tries to destroy his henpecked brother's marriage. "Wipeout" thrusts us into the scheming mind of a promiscuous stud who plays off one girlfriend against another so that we see how much fun it might be to get away with that particular kind of murder.

In "As of July 6th, I Am Responsible for No Debts Other Than My Own," a teen-ager must endure his mother's erotic bondage to a man he despises. Only his tough grandmother's stoic love keeps him from ending up "in some psycho ward or jail, or dead from a heroin overdose or an alcoholic street fight." The amnesiac ad writer in "The White Horse" won't rest until the abandoned circus horse he encounters in Bombay is resuscitated by American wealth and optimism -- plus the skills of an efficient old German doctor.

"The Black Lights," the book's knockout tale, marches us through a pocket-sized inferno of broken, cast-off soldiers when a brutal boxing match lands a Marine sergeant in a military neuropsych ward. The sacred vision arrives when visiting square-dancers entertain the patients, and the sergeant is jolted out of his psychotic stupor by the frightened performers' artistry: ". . . their sufferings and miseries vanished in their dancing, as they fell into the rhythm of the music and the singsong of the caller's instructions."

Thom Jones takes his events of what seems to have been a colorful, rough-and-tumble life and sets them to the deeper, meditative rhythms of reflection and self-insight. "The Pugilist at Rest" is the magnificent debut of an impressive new talent.

Ms. Wynn is a writer who lives in Somerville, Mass.

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