Thom Jones, who made Washington state his home, wrote some of the best American short stories ever. A new collection celebrates his legacy.
Thom Jones wrote some of the best American short stories ever. He also spent most of his adult life in Washington, first in Seattle and for the last 30 years or so in Olympia, where he lived with his wife and daughter and worked as a janitor at North Thurston High School before his breakthrough in the 1990s. Some of his most beautiful pieces — “Silhouettes,” “Tarantula” and “Cold Snap,” a story that’ll melt your icy blue heart — are set in schools and hospitals just like the ones around Puget Sound.
So why isn’t Jones, who died two years ago at age 71, as famous and beloved as Raymond Carver?
They both struggled with alcohol and poor health, attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, found success relatively late in life, wrote about regular people who tried but didn’t always make it and were masterful short-story writers who never published novels.
But only Carver is revered by Haruki Murakami and other literary superstars; his grave in Port Angeles attracts fans from around the world.
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But unlike Carver, who died of cancer at the height of his fame in 1988, Jones’ last book came out 17 years before his death. While he had some notable magazine publications over the last decade, the glory years of four straight appearances in “Best American Short Stories” were long past.
“Night Train: New and Selected Stories” is a most welcome chance to celebrate Jones’ legacy. It’s a greatest-hits collection, featuring the best of his three books (“The Pugilist at Rest,” “Cold Snap,” and “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine”) and seven stories written since “Sonny Liston” was published in 1999. All of Jones’ obsessions — Vietnam, drugs, boxing, fractured families, manual labor, dogs, death — are gathered under one roof in a glorious cacophony, elbowing each other and demanding to be heard.
His authorial voice, and the voice he gave to his characters, was there from the start, in the dead-run opening of “The Pugilist at Rest,” the story that went from the slush pile at The New Yorker to an O. Henry Prize: “Hey Baby got caught writing a letter to his girl when he was supposed to be taking notes on the specs of the M-14 rifle,” he writes. “We were sitting in a stifling hot Quonset hut during the first weeks of boot camp, August 1966, at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.”
It’s tempting to compare the first stories in “Night Train” — “The Pugilist at Rest,” “I Want to Live!” and “Mosquitoes” — to the new ones, to say that Jones didn’t change his style or develop as a writer. A more accurate take might be that his early stories are so good that it was hard to match them or escape their shadow.
I interviewed Jones at his home in Olympia after “Sonny Liston” first came out. He was a fire hose of stories and free association who played with his dog and gave himself an insulin injection in the stomach and shared his worldview.
“You know, they call it earth, but actually it’s hell,” Jones said. “Even a good day is so full of horrors it’s almost unbearable. When I open my eyes, there’s a chasm of despair waiting for me.”
“Night Train: New and Selected Stories” by Thom Jones, Little, Brown, 429 pp.; $28