Thom Jones’s first collection of stories, The Pugilist at Rest, was published in 1993, when he was in his late forties. He died in October 2016, at the age of seventy-one. This October, Little, Brown and Company published Night Train: New and Selected Stories, a definitive posthumous collection of his work.
On the first manuscript I submitted for critique at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop back in the fall of ’95, Thom Jones, my professor, crossed out the word breasts and replaced it with sexy milk jugs. He didn’t offer much more advice, written or verbal; he let my classmates do all the work. A few days later, as I sat in his office, watching the eyes of his shiny black Kit-Cat clock roll back and forth, listening to him talk about his psychiatric meds, his father’s suicide, and how Sally Field’s publicist kept hounding him to meet with Sally, I was mildly entertained, but wondered whether we’d ever get around to discussing my story. We didn’t.
I was cynical and miserable that first month of graduate school in Iowa City. I lived in one of two apartments above a drywall company, behind a soon-to-be-defunct Godfather’s Pizza, next to a vast lot of brand-new mobile homes. Beyond the mobile homes were a litter-filled swamp and the biggest Walmart I’d ever seen. My next-door neighbors were bikers, one of whom vomited in the washing machine we shared. They had very loud and very frequent sex that they narrated with porn clichés. I was grateful that I never heard them scream or moan the words sexy milk jugs.
Most people in the workshop lived within walking distance of one another, and within stumbling distance of the Fox Head and George’s, two of our favorite watering holes. I lived three carless miles away on Highway 1 West, in what felt like the epicenter of everything that was wrong with America.
Thom Jones was the reason I was there in the middle of the country, hiding in my shitty apartment, slogging through my days trying to write fiction and eating fifty-cent microwaved bean burritos. Because I always blamed others for my unhappiness, I’m sure I at least partially blamed him.
I’d been naive when considering M.F.A. programs. I applied to the University of Montana because I had recently visited a friend who lived there, and Missoula had mountains, weird David Lynchian bars that tripled as casinos and strip clubs, and a Dairy Queen with a shrub in the shape of a soft-serve cone. My Montana friend’s access to a trampoline sweetened the pot. I applied to Brown because they had rejected me twice as an undergraduate and I was still convinced they shouldn’t have. And I applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop because I had heard of it, and a friend from another phase of graduate school was there. I was mostly ignorant of its selectivity, prestige, and vaunted history.
Brown rejected me for the third time. They shouldn’t have. But Montana and Iowa accepted me. I imagined mountain biking, snowboarding, and stoned trampolining my way through my M.F.A., and I was ready to accept Montana’s offer until I learned that Thom Jones was teaching at Iowa.
I had recently read “The Pugilist at Rest” in a slightly outdated edition of the Best American Short Stories, and I fell in love with its raw emotions and its singular voice, which was at once casual and intelligent, hilarious and earnest. The story was alive with an obsessive energy, and like nothing I had ever read before. I found myself rooting for the endearing narrator, a philosophical marine and epileptic boxer. My deep investment in him endured even after he bashed in a fellow soldier’s skull with the butt of his M14: “Did I see skull fragments and brain tissue? It seemed that I did.” Like the narrator, I didn’t delight in the violence. But I worked to justify it because I had come to accept that his victim, a bully called Hey Baby, deserved it, and that the narrator hadn’t meant to hit him that hard. A more conventional story might include some sort of resolution to the Hey Baby plot, but not “The Pugilist at Rest.” The narrator, in the penultimate paragraph, simply concludes that “good and evil are only illusions,” and by that point in the story, I concurred.
When I learned about the story’s author from a friend, I admired it even more. Thom Jones had worked for years as a high school janitor, and like his narrator he was a former marine and boxer. Aside from a story populated with talking animals called “Brother Dodo’s Revenge,” which had appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine back in 1973,“The Pugilist at Rest” was Thom’s first publication. It had received several rejections from small literary magazines before it was finally plucked from the slush pile at The New Yorker. It won an O. Henry Prize and, just a few years later, became the title story of Thom’s first collection, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Thom’s mind-blowing rise was what every new writer dreamed of—minus, of course, the three decades of rejection and custodial work.
The thing is, in workshop, Thom talked about his mind-blowing rise to success … a lot. I began to notice that he would recycle the same anecdotes and employ the same not-so-subtle rhetorical strategies to bring the focus of the class back to him: his relationships with his agent and publisher, the calls from editors begging him for a new story, the ups and downs of his multicity book tours, or how he was paid only a measly four or five hundred dollars when one of his stories appeared in the Best American or O. Henry Prize anthologies. Once, at the beginning of class, he actually asked whether any of us knew Sally Field’s publicist so he could mention—again—that he or she had been pestering him. Thom paid less attention to his students’ writing than any professor I’d ever had, except for maybe my calculus professor from freshman year of college.
In what I now consider a rather mature attempt to eke out some value from the class and not give up on the semester, I read more of Thom’s work—every story in his collections The Pugilist at Rest and Cold Snap. But the energy and emotion I admired the first time I read a Thom Jones story quickly grew to feel cloying and contrived. The stories blended and became indistinguishable; their protagonists were more often than not macho doctors in Third World countries, soldiers, or boxers, or combinations of the three. In his stories, I noticed an unironic fascination with luxury brands—Rolex, Patek Philippe, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes—and I’d never seen Thom himself in a shirt that didn’t feature an embroidered polo player on the left breast or with his pale wrist bare of his own Rolex. Of course, I was failing to separate the writer’s personality from his work, and my feelings about Thom as a disappointing teacher were probably coloring my reading. But I felt like I’d been fooled.
Until I read “I Want to Live!”
There it was again: the excitement of reading fiction that was unshakably honest, the sense that this story had to be told, the vitality pulsing off the page. And this time the protagonist was an older woman dying of cancer, whose relationship with her son-in-law—a guy very much like Thom—grows as her health deteriorates. Thom’s trademark Schopenhauerian allusions were organic, not ostentatious. I had never read such heartrending and excruciatingly detailed depictions of the physical and mental discomfort that come with the barrage of medical tests and procedures that cancer patients must endure. I was with the protagonist as she approached death and her mind wandered from a childhood pet rooster’s misadventures to existential and moral questions that she concluded might all be bullshit. I loved her son-in-law the way she began to, especially when he proved more useful in relieving her pain than her doctors were. My own problems—the noisy sex neighbors, the isolation from my cohort, my dissatisfaction with my own fiction— suddenly seemed trivial and fell away. Just like that, my deep admiration for Thom was back. I returned to workshop the following week with a new attitude. I no longer resented Thom; he was a genius who should be spending his waking hours writing his stories, not teaching a bunch of desperate graduate students like me.
Two of my friends and I began to position ourselves at the far corner of the conference table, away from Thom’s coterie of admirers. Freed from my resentment, I began to take a prurient delight in the workshop’s chaos. Each week, the Triangle of Hate, as the three of us called ourselves, eagerly waited to learn what sort of soporific drivel Thom would praise as terrific. The answer to that question was always the soporific drivel written by the cute young woman with the baby voice and short overalls. When a student submitted a piece about the cartoonishly sinister CEO of an evil cola conglomerate, Thom kicked back and let us discuss it, and then summed up our scathing critiques with a simple “good stuff.” One guy, who also happened to be Thom’s workout buddy, wrote a twelve-page cliché about the circus, and Thom called the story “important” because it was “about dreams.” The eye rolling from the Triangle of Hate that day was almost audible. I was constantly reminding myself that the man at the head of the table was likely one of the best living writers, that any scrap or hint of advice or opinion that might slip out of his mouth was worth savoring. There were very few scraps, though.
Once, when a young man who wasn’t Thom’s workout partner submitted a particularly saccharine story about a hot-air balloon, Thom immediately dismissed it as “bullshit” and announced that we weren’t going to waste time talking about it. The author was deeply humiliated. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, a woman whose integrity and fiction I very much admired spoke up and asked Thom how the writer of the balloon story was supposed to learn if we didn’t discuss his work. Thom kept it cruel: “It’s bullshit, and we’re not discussing it.” Even though all three members of the Triangle of Hate agreed that the story was bullshit, we didn’t see that one coming. This story was no more bullshit than half the stories submitted that semester. I was pretty sure that if the young woman in the short overalls had submitted the same story, Thom would have called it a “breakthrough story”—a term he used quite often to describe his admirers’ work. I began to scan the balloon manuscript for anything I could appreciate so that I could balance out the negative annotations with a few positive ones. In the margin, I should have written, Thom is an asshole. Ignore him.
My renewed admiration of Thom grew more and more difficult to sustain. The workshop seemed cursed. He nearly nodded off a few times, perhaps because of low blood sugar—on at least one occasion, he shot himself up with insulin in front of us all. Toward the end of the semester, a student literally—and I don’t mean literally in the millennial sense—turned green and passed out. The green woman was rolled out of class on a gurney and rushed to the ER. It was scary and unsettling, but somehow not surprising.
While the workshops were the focus of the program, Iowa required us to take seminars, discussion-based literature courses, as well. I took a heady Faulkner seminar from Marilynne Robinson my first semester. I signed up for Thom’s seminar second semester. Perhaps I’d become addicted to the histrionics of his workshop, or was still in awe of “I Want to Live!” I’d also heard that Thom required very little of his seminar students, and I felt that I needed to concentrate on my own writing.
The topic of the seminar remains a mystery to this day. On my transcript, the course is listed as SEM PROB MOD FIC, which I assume means Seminar: Problems in Modern Fiction, but I don’t remember discussing any problems in modern fiction. He showed us a few films—Days of Heaven was one, I think—and our only text was Best American Short Stories 1995, which featured Thom’s story “Way Down Deep in the Jungle.”
My second year at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I was much less bitter. I moved away from the drywall company and the sexually vocal bikers to an apartment near everyone else. I fell in love with the guy across the hall, a first-year fiction student, and came out of the closet. My workshop professors behaved largely like professors and my writing moved in a direction I liked. I don’t believe Thom was still teaching, but he remained in Iowa City and appeared at every single student party I attended, sometimes with his beautiful dog, a boxer, always with a cigarette—despite notes from his young daughter penned on the pack: NO NO NO DADDY.
When I heard the news of Thom’s death a few years ago, I felt intense remorse. I was ashamed of the way I had decided to remember him. Over the twenty or so years that had passed, I had thought of him only as the professor of a terrible workshop. I had forgotten or chosen to forget that when he wasn’t my teacher and I wasn’t expecting anything from him, I found him fascinating, a true raconteur, and quite funny. More shameful, though, was that I didn’t remember him as one of the most talented short-story writers who ever lived—which is what he was. My recollections of him were so negative that I rarely, if ever, taught one of his stories to my own students. So I set out to reread The Pugilist at Rest and Cold Snap, and read Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine for the first time.
Once again, I was deeply moved by “The Pugilist at Rest.” I cried while reading “I Wanna Live!” The other stories that I had dismissed a few decades ago, the ones that had all bled together, contained layers of playful irony my young self hadn’t discerned or appreciated. They were all carefully and intelligently conveyed with Thom’s deliberate but casual voice.
The real thrill was “Daddy’s Girl,” the dense, twelve-page life story of a wretched but hopeful woman called Junk whose sister, not her, was daddy’s girl. It’s written in the first person and details Junk’s long and disappointing life, beginning with a childhood that includes a father who plays the fiddle and buys his daughters new cars but is also an abusive alcoholic who kicks his wife down the stairs and threatens his family with a .32. Her static and gloomy adulthood is marked only by the deaths of her husband and her sisters, and the telling is imbued with her own simpleminded philosophizing. The rural dialect Thom employs is utterly convincing and not the least bit hokey or distracting and, if the story weren’t so relentlessly grim and had taken place eight hundred miles south, it might recall to the reader one of Eudora Welty’s voice-driven pieces.
The other previously ignored treat was “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine,” the title story of Thom’s third collection, which was released in 1999, two years after I left Iowa. I had imagined the story would be a reworking of every other one of Thom’s boxing stories, but it proved to be the most original piece of boxing fiction I’d read since Rick Bass’s “The Legend of Pig-Eye.” Its protagonist, Kid Dynamite, is a driven teenage welterweight with a stepdad he calls Cancer Frank and a mother he calls the Driver. While the plot seems hackneyed—Kid trains hard to beat his boxing nemesis with the support of his loving girlfriend—the story is so rich with dysfunctional family dynamics, and Kid’s sardonic character is so artfully drawn, that it’s impossible not to find the final paragraphs of the story—the bout—wholly riveting, even to someone like me who’s never watched a boxing match or read a sports page in his life.
Recently, Little, Brown published Night Train: New and Collected Stories, Thom’s posthumous greatest-hits collection. Of the seven newer, previously uncollected works, “The Junkman of Chengdu” shines the brightest. The first-person narrator is a twenty-year-old woman, an American exchange student in China. The story is a dazzling, almost plotless monologue replete with comic attitude. In a completely authentic voice, she rants about the contaminated water in which you “can dump a ton of Halazone … and you still got poison”; the squat toilets she’s forced to use, “where green bottle flies the size of bumblebees fly blind with their Saran Wrap wings, seduced and entranced by the magical aroma that calls them like the Sirens of the Cyclades Islands”; and her annoying bulimic roommate whose boyfriend is “a hyped-up ADD, Adderall-doesn’t-work, walking nervous breakdown.” She speaks with a petulant authority that betrays a deep loneliness. Reading “The Junkman of Chengdu” is like sitting behind a yammering person on a train who at first is very annoying, but gradually becomes so fascinating that it’s disappointing when they gather their things and get off.
On the final day of that ill-fated and infamous workshop, Thom handed out unsolicited letters of recommendation to everyone. The vague and clearly formulaic letters were identical to one another, except for our names. We were all terrific writers—even the author of the balloon story—and Thom highly recommended us for any fellowship, residency, or teaching position to which we might apply. Then, with a boyish grin, Thom distributed the teacher-evaluation forms and left the room so we could fill them out anonymously. I was insulted that he thought he could bribe us with his dashed-off and xeroxed letters of recommendation, and began to fill in the evaluation, rating him a one or two out of five in most categories. A few moments later, as we were scribbling away, Thom peeked his head back in the room. “Remember,” he said in his low rumble, “asshole is with two s’s.” I changed my responses on the evaluation. I could indeed be bribed by wit.
Mark Jude Poirier is the author of two novels and two story collections. In 2014, IFC released Hateship Loveship, which he adapted from an Alice Munro story. He holds a Briggs-Copeland lectureship in the creative writing faculty at Harvard.