Author (and high school janitor, and Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate and teacher) Thom Jones has died, age 71, of complications from diabetes. He had a lot of health problems, both physical and mental including temporal lobe epilepsy ever since being knocked cold in a boxing match in the Marine Corps. He is the second of my three all-time favorite American fiction writers to fall. He was the best writer of short fiction in the entire history of the world. You have never heard of him.
And he was fucking amazing.
I have been waiting for new material from him since his third and
last final collection appeared in 1999. Now I will be waiting forever. The good news, from your point of view, is that you have never read him. Go buy all three of his books and do it right now. (*) You may thank me at leisure:
His life story as a human being, as a writer was amazing. (*) Someone should write a biography of him, but no one ever will, or at least not for a hundred years. To tide us over, here is most of his essay from Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction (which also has pieces from my other two favorite American fiction writers). (*)
“I Am a . . . Genius!” by Thom Jones(slightly abridged)
As a fiction instructor at the University of Iowa, I was often asked by my students what it takes to devise a “breakthrough” short story or novel. Something to skyrocket the writer to fame and fortune, set the literary world aglow, win a ton of prizes, and guarantee the author a rich and prosperous future. I was a student at the Workshop myself back in the seventies, and it was a question I had dwelled on like a Zen koan. I used to think about it so hard my brain started smoking. I was Smokin’ Thom Jones. Did I smoke cigarettes? No, but I was Smokin’ Thom Jones. I smoked, smoldered, and fumed so hard I had to duct-tape ice cubes alongside my temporal lobes to prevent my whole head from bursting into flames, luxurious, gorgeous, flowing chestnut locks and all. It was the most acutely awful taxing of my brain that I ever put it to in a voluntary fashion. And what did I come up with? I came up with zip. No miracles, just commonplace notions. I figured that not only did you actually have to write to become a writer, but there was probably also a trick to the whole affair. Possibly there was a secret mystical society you had to join. At the least, I imagined that it had something to do with giving the right people “blow jobs.” Beyond that, I was clueless. While other Iowa writers were hanging out at the Mill or the Foxhead, my fingers were blistering the keyboard five hours a day, seven days a week. I was just another greaseball from Aurora, Illinois, but I had my dreams. I believed. And I churned out one boring novel after another.
The school’s headmaster gave my mother the name of a “head doctor,” and I was sent to see him. He thought my comics were piss-in-your-pants funny, too, and would sit in his office pounding his fist against his thigh as he read them, roaring with laughter. He would have to blow his nose and dab his eyes after these convulsions of mirth. Then he would remember he was a psychiatrist and would say, “Your problem, my young friend, is this: you are a stubborn individualist. You want to go it alone in the ant colony of society, and that just isn’t possible. Most likely you will end up dead at an early age, or in prison. Already you are addicted to comic books; you even make your own. While they are funny, the themes emerging from them are the product of a disturbed mind. Why don’t you join the Boy Scouts and get a little fresh air or something?”
I said there were two things I hated to do: get up before four P.M. and go outside.
He shook his head and said, “If that’s the case, you might as well shoot yourself and get it over with now. You’re in for a lot of pain and heartache, my little buddy, for you are going to find this planet a cruel and brutal place.”
That all changed when I happened upon a copy of Huckeleberry Finn. I liked Mark Twain and attacked his whole body of work. Then one thing led to another. As an omnivorous reader of comic books, I easily accomplished the transition to reading books of all kinds. My favorites were works of fiction inhabited by characters of alienation. I prowled the glass-floored balcony of the Aurora public library, reading such authors as Steinbeck, Dickens, Somerset Maugham, Jack London, and Kenneth Roberts for no reason other than information and pleasure. My criminal mind was not bent on self-improvement, but reading did have a side benefit: it did not lead to pregnancies, hangovers, beatings, or arrests. By high school I was reading John Updike and Kingsley Amis hardly a precocious feat, unless you think of Aurora in terms of that awful gold pit they’ve got in the Brazilian jungle, and imagine the shantytown culture that flourishes around it. All Aurora had going for it was a Carnegie-vintage library. It was otherwise a town devoid of color.
At the library, I made the acquaintance of Salinger, who influenced me greatly, and, if I remember correctly, it was Salinger who suggested that being an author of fiction was the most noble occupation of all. Hemingway, who came from not-so-distant Oak Park, Illinois, was America’s larger-than-life writer at this time. But though he wrote of things that fascinated me, like war, bullfighting, and boxing, I was never a diehard Hemingway fan. I did not dispute his authority; I just liked other writers better Nelson Algren and James Jones, for instance. Jones was the one author I ever sent a fan letter to (I received a gracious response). I loved William Styron, John Dos Passos, and Norman Mailer. I loved Joyce Carol Oates, who did not strut and swagger but instead put out a prodigious amount of really good work. I was not a snob. I expected that I would spend my life working in one of the many factories in Aurora, Illinois. But my God, what hellholes those factories were! As my high school graduation approached, I let my subscription to Ace Comics slide past its renewal date. I didn’t require pictures any longer; I waas addicted to words.
I finally escaped the factories of Aurora and went to the University of Hawaii. Through a stroke of luck, I got a small apartment in an exclusive Manoa Valley subdivision by working as my landlady’s gardener. There were royal palms off my lanai, and gardenia trees that blew fragrant breezes into my apartment each night. I signed up for my first course in creative writing, and with the trade winds blowing off the heat of each day, I pounded a Royal standard typewriter late into the night. Just as I had once found remission from the existential chasm of despair in the act of writing comics, I now found the same relief in writing fiction. Esquire and the Atlantic Monthly asked for rewrites on the first two stories I wrote. These were fixes I didn’t even attempt since I felt I was light-years beyond them. I was already hard at work on a novel.
Ultimately I entered the writing program at Iowa, where a friend put me onto Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, a book that was to influence me profoundly. After Iowa I took my first trip to Europe and began to hunger after travel. I worked at an assortment of writing jobs and found them meaningless and debilitating. Any thoughts I had of becoming a real writer were extinguished soon after I joined the American work force. When I returned to Iowa to teach, I saw my students face their own graduations with a dread of the real world that bordered on panic. It was perceived as something that could suck you into its vortex and never let you go. It was a Venus’s-flytrap that ate out your soul.
But life gives you many chances. After getting fired from a job as a newspaper editor in 1980, I wrote another unpublishable novel. I didn’t even send it out. I got drunk and burned it.
I was drinking heavily at the time and counteracting this destructive pastime with twenty-mile runs, three-mile swims, three-hour weight-lifting sessions. I was still boxing, in spite of my epilepsy. There was a good angel perched on one shoulder and a bad one on the other.
When I ran out of money, I took a job as a night janitor at a school, where I had a pool, a weight room, a library all to myself. It was a great thing. I could rush through my area in a few hours and after that I was free to pursue whatever pleasures that struck my fancy. I was still addicted to compulsive exercise and it was for this reason that I had taken the job. One night, with a case of beer at hand, I did ten thousand sit-ups in sets of five hundred. It was easy, although I think it wrecked my back forever. In those days, I could do thirty-five chin-ups, press 138 pounds behind the neck, and curl 125 pounds in reps of eight. I could pick up the entire stack of weights on the Universal machine. Weight lifting merely requires a doggedness bordering on obsession. After two years of this, nearly every joint in my body was injured. Drinking killed the pain and tedium of it, but long-term sprains would force me into weeks of recuperation. I kept on drinking. My hand-to-mouth was never impaired, and the drinking got out of hand. There were close calls. I had to open up the school and was often drunk by then. My partner on the graveyard shift was a pot smoker, and by dawn we looked like a pair of Mission Street bums. Our eyes were like two balls of fire. There were Visine bottles everywhere you turned, and the hangovers were like bad mescaline trips. Ultimately the drinking pushed me into type 1 diabetes, and I had no choice but to stop. Stop on a dime, bro! From the first, sobriety did not seem like a very friendly place. I could accomplish only a small amount of physical work and would then be forced to lie on the floor for a time to recover from these small exertions. I would maybe get up, look in the mirror to see one pupil fully dilated and the other a pinpoint. I think they call it Horner’s symptom, evidence of an ongoing stroke. My heart would flutter like a Hong Kong chicken suffering bird flu. I would go down to the welding shop and inhale pure oxygen until my sickly, racing pulse sank back into the double-digit area. The man of ten thousand sit-ups now barely had the strength to get through a single night of work. I switched over to the second shift to ensure that I would not fall off the wagon there were too many people around then for me to get away with drinking. Also, if I fell down dead on the second shift, I was reasonably certain that my body would be found and my family notified.
I looked at him like, “Hey, man, don’t get all bent out of shape. You should have my fucking job.”
I didn’t know how many more Friday nights I had left in me. Once I offered another janitor a hundred dollars if he would dump my bag, and he refused. I considered other employment options, but it occurred to me that I wasn’t very good at anything. I had hated every job I’d ever had.
Then one day, watching television, I saw Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner across a cartoon desert. Cartoon New Mexico, I figure. I was hoping that he would catch the stupid and annoying bird and rip its head off. But then, in the middle of the chase, the coyote came to a screeching halt, stepped out of the cartoon, and walked toward the audience with a wry, self-satisfied grin on his face. His footfalls ka-flop ka-flop ka-flop, cartoon style. No big hurry here. He acted like he had all the time in the world. When he was finally in place, he pulled his shoulders back, looked into the camera, and said, just as cool as you please, “Allow me to introduce myself. Wile E. Coyote . . . genius.”
“Genius,” he said. Genniiee-us. Genieuz. Maybe that’s just another word for perseverance. Wile E. Coyote, no matter what else you might say about him, was not a quitter. I mean, if you keep plugging at it, you might get it. If you quit pow, it’s over.
Maybe it was my comic-book past those lost years of happiness that caused me to be affected so deeply. Wile E. Coyote reinvigorated me with hope. I made up my mind to take another stab at writing. At the time I was reading and rereading some very good writers, including Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Robert McCarthy immaculate writers, immortals. I decided to forget trying to imitate any of them. Part of a writer’s style is always imbued with the styles of the people he reads, but to the extent that such a thing was possible, I determined to write for myself alone. I would write the sort of material that pleased me, and this meant dwelling on life’s absurdities. I bought a Macintosh computer. Because of my work schedule and diminished health, I wrote stories. You can write a short story in a sitting, say on a Saturday afternoon. With a draft done and the mood, atmosphere, and tone of the piece captured in the first stroke, I didn’t have to try and pick up the voice again and sustain it through further adventures all I had to do was rewrite and polish. It was fun from the very beginning. Va-room! Va-room! No more lying on the floor before the TV Saturday afternoons waiting for hangovers to burn off for Thom; I was writing. Self-discipline became my middle name. Before the Mac, I had never written more than three drafts of anything. Now I was a rewriting ace. My first computer-written piece was “Rocketman,” a story about professional boxing. I went through something like thirty drafts and then I sent it to Jon Jackson, an Iowa pal and a writer who had earned a living from writing almost from the day he left the Workshop. Jon knows a lot about boxing, and he liked the story. He showed it to Richard Ford, who thought Joyce Oates might like it for the Ontario Review. No oral sex was asked for or given. I got a nice note from Ms. Oates, one of my great heroes. It was the first personal note I’d received since Esquire and the Atlantic wrote me in Hawaii back in the sixties. I made some changes and returned the story to the Ontario Review. Ultimately, it was turned down, and I was overcome by a tsunami wave of self-pity. The Voice of Discouragement spoke to me from one of my Friday-night dust clouds: “You ain’t got it, man. You might as well go and buy a case of beer. You’re just a greaseball. A janitor. Aurora, Illinois. Shame on you!”
I told Jon Jackson I couldn’t write any better than that. He said, “Thom, look, you wrote one of the best goddamn boxing stories I ever read. But remember this: editors don’t want to buy your stories. They get tons of stories. You have to write something that’s so good they can’t reject it. This isn’t about connections or whom you know. It’s about the text. Nine times out of ten, a good magazine will print a first-rate story by an unknown before they run a second-rate story by a marquee name.”
“They will?” I said.
I still remember Jackson’s exasperation. “Thom!” he said. “For Christ’s sake!”
His words were golden. I felt like Grasshopper in Kung Fu, getting some big-time insight. Suddenly acceptance wasn’t about me; it was about the text. I wasn’t so sure I could overcome my low self-esteem, but I truly believed I could write something fresh, original, unlike anything anyone else had ever written something sui generis. Jackson had effectively severed the connection between my talent and my personal self-perceptions. I said, “Why didn’t you tell me this shit twenty-five years ago?”
I felt like a genieuz again. A genius with a difference. Writing straight from the heart, I sat down and composed “The Pugilist at Rest” in a single sitting. Three days later I wrote “I Want to Live,” and so it went. One afternoon my then-agent, Candida Donadio, called me up three times in rapid succession: first to report a sale to Harper’s; thirty minutes later another sale, to Esquire; and then, fifteen minutes after that, yet another, to the New Yorker. Three in an afternoon. She said, “Thirty years in the business, and I’ve never seen that happen. Never.”
As it turned out, all three of the magazines hit the newsstands in the same month, and passing through an airport I saw all of them on a magazine rack all three in my frame of vision. I had been in the slicks frequently since the publication of “Pugilist,” but I did not live in New York and was virtually unknown there. People were saying, “Who the fuck is this guy?” To the reading public it seemed like overnight success, but fiction writers often mature at a glacial pace. I was slower than most. I was sometimes on the verge of agreeing with Stanislavsky, who said, “They are most happy who have no story to tell.” After getting lost and being found time and again, the writers who don’t quit discover the ecstasy within the process of the work itself. They discover the sublime joy of seeing things come together to produce an artistic whole. You read books and love them and someday hope to have the talent and vision to write your own. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. In fact, many of our best writers come from the streets. From places like Aurora, Illinois. You can be a greaseball off the streets, so long as you are a greaseball who knows how to put things together. Fame or money might follow, but they are never the primary event. I had a lot of students tell me they were going to cop out and write screenplays or genre fiction to “make a shitload of money.” And my reply was always the same: You don’t just toss things off and make money. You have to write with your heart and soul. Do you think Willie Mays played center field for the Giants just so he could become rich and famous? Or do you think maybe he played it because he loved the game? Loved it so much he would have done it for free?
Someday Wile E. Coyote will prevail. Not because he wants a bird sandwich, but because he had a burning desire. He will pay the price. He will go the extra mile. And one day he will find the right plan. I know he will. That wolf is a genieuz.
Thom Jones grew up in a gritty Illinois factory town. His father abandoned the family and was later committed to a mental institution, where he hanged himself. When Thom was still a teenager, he joined the Marines. Savagely beaten in a boxing match at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and mistakenly given a diagnosis of schizophrenia, he was discharged to his great good fortune: All the members of his reconnaissance unit but one were killed in Vietnam.
Recovering from alcoholism and addiction to prescription drugs, Mr. Jones was 47 and working nights as a janitor in a Lacey, Wash., high school when he mailed, unsolicited, a fictionalized Vietnam War story to The New Yorker. It was admired so immediately that it bypassed the usual vetting by multiple editors and sailed into print in late 1991, receiving critical acclaim, and the O. Henry Award in 1993 for best short story. The collection was a National Book Award finalist.
Thus did Mr. Jones, who died on Friday at 71 in Olympia, Wash., burst from obscurity to become an idiosyncratic literary sensation.
Just totally incidentally, he is not highbrow, or particularly “literary” (whatever that is meant to mean), or even at all challenging much, much, much, much less boring. He is a freaking blast to read. Trust me here.
Also incidentally, yeah, I hand-typed this. Not only is it not available anywhere online, in any format, but the book it comes from isn’t even available as a Kindle title. Talk about neglected. I am hereby slightly redressing this injustice, not to mention impoverishment of the world.
He was working as a school janitor when his unsolicited debut story was picked up by the New Yorker. (It won the O. Henry Award, and the collection of which it was the title story was a National Book Award finalist.) Shortly afterward, coming out of nowhere, he had three stories accepted in 45 minutes by the New Yorker, Harpers, and Esquire.