Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Pugilist Resting Comfortably

If you're like me then one thing you enjoy (and I mean enjoy) is browsing used bookstores, ideally those with piles and stacks of books that aren't in any identifiable order. So "finds" (i.e., books and authors I wouldn't normally read if it were up to me and my browsing on Amazon) are commonplace in used bookstores of this disheveled (in a good way) variety I describe, and that makes me so happy -- possibly happier than is logical but I think I contain my exuberance reasonably well, even if I make off with my "finds" like I somehow pulled a fast one on the old guy (and it's always an old(ish) guy where I'm from) who owns the place and mans the register, and usually "the register" is something like an old cigar box. It should be said I'm frequently absconding with things that are either fairly cheap and I paid for them or entirely free, like my taking the complimentary literary edition of Vice Magazine from an American Apparel a couple weeks ago, imagine the trill in my step when no alarm sounded as I was leaving. It has interviews with Annie Proulx, Jim Shepard and William Gass!

Anyway, one such "find" I unearthed at a used book store recently was Thom Jones' "The Pugilist at Rest." Now, I have to admit I wasn't expecting much from Jones, even with the heavy accolade of a "National Book Award Finalist" badge stamped on his book's cover. National Book Awards (and their runners up) are always quality writing but not always my kind of quality writing. I'll further admit I wasn't super impressed by Jones' first couple stories, and again not because they weren't good but because they were very familiar to me in terms of tone. I was like, "Oh, awesome, I mean we've got another guy, in this case a veteran of the conflict, taking a stab at Vietnam by way of the U.S. soldier's perspective." It wasn't that he couldn't do this well (he did), it was that lots of guys seemed to have beaten him to the punch, with similar protagonists and similar scenes -- the likes of James Crumley and Tim O'Brien came immediately to mind. I still liked what I was getting from Thom Jones, but I couldn't escape from feeling the "more of the same" vibe.

But thankfully that's selling Thom Jones short, which I'm honestly always pleased when I find out I've sold an author short. (I don't like doing it!) Jones' vaguely-based-on-true-events Vietnam stories were only part of a really ballsy collection. I say "ballsy" because in the first place that particular word (slang, if you want to be a picky grammarian) has a Thom Jones sound to it, like the same sort of crass vernacular that's indicative of Jones' style. I say "ballsy" also because some of his stories barely resemble the tough-as-nails-but-with-heart style of his war stories. "I Want to Live!" for example is more like his fellow Illinoisan Richard Powers' novel "Gain" and in which a woman is left to come to terms with her inoperable abdominal cancer. She finds logic.

In another called "Silhouettes" Jones' protagonist is as impotent and sheepish as characters will get, which isn't exactly Jones' writing M.O., either -- or as I say, that's what I thought. But he's largely successful here, as well, with his character, Window, reaching "can't stands no more" catharsis. Even his war stories' protagonists -- all of whom seem more or less to be caricatures of himself, based on what I've read of his personal history -- are flawed and often deeply at the mercy of the system, with resemblance to the motley set of patients inhabiting Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (at one point in "As of July 6, I Am Responsible for No Debts Other Than My Own" he references the movie by name, and I think in so doing hints at his awareness of a connection).

Now as said, flawed heroes in stories about Vietnam's G.I.s aren't terribly hard to come by, but I think Jones adds his own take more than he echos this genre's still-ongoing dialogue. His philosophical tack is one that differs from his peers as much as it shares many of the traits that have come to define the Vietnam hero, viz. emotional instability, nihilistic leanings, apathy or extreme rage, pugnaciousness, psychopathy or sociopathy -- in three words, a damaged being. They're also men who measure virility by the amount of physical blows one can endure. In the case of Jones' heroes, they're usually boxers -- but never are they the uncomplicated spitting image of the "Ubermensch." Taken from his own personal experiences with the affliction (according to his wiki entry he suffers from temporal lobe epilepsy), nearly all of his protagonists are epileptics of some degree of severity. Often, he relates his fighters to the actual bronzed sculpture of The Pugilist at Rest -- i.e., in the aftermath of their battles, a kind of Beowulf-in-winter perspective, most of their bodies comprised of visible scars and scar tissue, and the lasting effects of broken bones and brain damage. He doesn't always do this by direct reference but in reading "The Pugilist at Rest," in which story he does make a direct correlation, one gets a sense of how the fighter is always fated to his broken-down end, cannot endure forever, even if the spirit is willing. Jones' unnamed narrator (and likely stand-in for himself) in "The Pugilist at Rest" remarks about the Pugilist sculpture:
How did he come to be at this place in space and time? Would he rather be safely removed to the countryside -- an obscure, stinking peasant shoving a plow behind a mule? Would that be better? Or does he revel in his role? Perhaps he once did, but surely not now.
It's surely a different way of considering the old war horse. Without any battles left to fight, or only the battles that will finally finish you, existence is a labor in itself. Actually, better put it's a battle in itself, the final battle is with the efficacy of your own health and well-being, which is an idea Jones' fiction nicely captures. Maybe that's why he's such an earnest and enthusiastic fan of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

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