Thom Jones survived a Dickensian childhood, self-hate and a brain injury from boxing to become an idiosyncratic literary sensation as a writer of short stories. The award-winning author and resident of Washington state died Oct. 14 in Olympia.
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.
Jones worked on the Betty Crocker Noodles Almondine line at a General Mills plant. He was fired as an advertising copywriter because, he was told, a client would not countenance his proposed slogan for the Jolly Green Giant — which was more or less, with an expletive inserted, “These are the best peas I ever ate.”
Recovering from alcoholism and addiction to prescription drugs, Jones was 47 and working nights in Washington state as a janitor in a Lacey, Thurston County, 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.
Thus did Jones, who died Oct. 14 at 71 in Olympia, burst from obscurity to become an idiosyncratic literary sensation.
Most Read Local Stories
- WA is stuck with a travel nurse dilemma, pitting care against costs
- Traffic chaos forces closure of I-90 westbound from Mercer Island through Sunday
- In new Senate ads, Tiffany Smiley uses an old GOP tactic: Call out Seattle
- '50% was a mistake': Seattle City Council abandoned the idea of defunding police
- Derogatory term for Native women removed from WA creek, lake names
His ferocious, semiautobiographical short stories about boxers, custodians, soldiers, crime victims, cancer patients and asylum inmates coupled a fateful machismo — the eternal pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer was his hero — with grim humor.
“These are people you wouldn’t want living next door to you,” he said in an interview with The Mississippi Review in 1999. “Even I wouldn’t want them living next door. But it’s fun to drop in on them occasionally and see what sort of preposterous activities they are up to.”
Cautioning readers that one of his anthologies, “Cold Snap,” required “strong nerves and an even stronger stomach,” the novelist Joyce Carol Oates wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 1995, “Reading Thom Jones’ fiction is like speeding in an open car: The landscape blurs, the momentum becomes intoxicating — and then the brakes are applied, with no warning.”
His first published short story, “The Pugilist at Rest” (the title was inspired by a well-known ancient statue of an aging boxer), described a Marine buddy who had just been bayoneted in the heart by an enemy soldier.
“I was able to see Jorgeson’s eyes — a final flash of glorious azure before they faded into the unfocused and glazed gray of death,” he wrote. “A pair of Phantom F-4s came in very low with delayed-action high-explosive rounds and napalm. I could feel the almost unbearable heat waves of the latter, volley after volley. I can still feel it and smell it to this day.”
Jones’ first anthology, published in 1993, included that story and shared its title. “I frankly wonder whether anyone has written better about this war or better caught its terrifying otherness,” the novelist Thomas McGuane wrote in The Times Book Review.
The collection was a National Book Award finalist.
In 1999, Jones ended a meteoric decade with another well-received anthology, “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine.” He later worked on screenplays and a novel.
“I channeled my obsessive-compulsive behavior into my writing and soon found that if I wrote a lot each and every day, a kind of psychological integration took place within me and a form of peace became available,” he told The Mississippi Review.
“I wasn’t good at anything,” he continued, “never had a job I liked, but there were books and writers that essentially saved my life, kept me going.” He read them in the school library on breaks from his job as a janitor.
“For me it was easy: Produce text that was so good, an editor could not reject it,” he said. “If I couldn’t do that, I had no business whining about anything. Show or go. It’s Darwinian and it’s fair.”
Thomas Douglas Jones was born on Jan. 26, 1945, in Aurora, Illinois, the son of Joseph Jones, a professional boxer, and the former Marilyn Carpenter, a real-estate broker. (His father later hanged himself at the Oregon asylum where “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was filmed.) He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington in 1970 and received a master’s in fine arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
His wife, the former Sally Williams, survives him, as does their daughter, Dr. Jenny Jones.
Thom Jones likened writing to boxing: conjuring fear while accessing the subconscious.
“In any academic English program there are truly brilliant people who can dissect and explicate works of literature and poetry, and these people are often too smart to actually be able to produce the same,” he said. “Life as a janitor of course was much simpler.”
Jones survived a Dickensian childhood, self-hate and a brain injury from boxing that resulted in temporal lobe epilepsy. He died of complications of diabetes, his wife said.
“Before my injury, I wasn’t inclined to be a reader, or obsessed with God and the meaning of life,” he told The Times in 1993. “Ever since this happened to me, I’ve been a more introspective guy, constantly reading philosophy, studying world religions and then having a fever, literally a fever, to write.
“It’s a lust, an obsession, to put it down, and in the act of writing I’m not Thom Jones. And it’s such a relief to not be Thom Jones.”