Books Quarterly: The Sweet Science of Literary Revenge

Thom Jones becomes winner, evens score with world.

Thom Jones has worked with some real assholes. Like the guy who stole credit for the ad copy Jones wrote, back when he toiled as a creative for one of the Chicago shops in the 1970s. Made him so mad he clean-and-jerked his IBM Selectric and hucked it out the window and nearly killed a woman. “I left,” he explains, relaxing on the couch in his Olympia home. “Police came. Bad news.” Or like the guy who canned him from his job as a reporter covering the Washington state Legislature. “Guy told me, ‘You’re not a very good writer,’ Jones says. “Stupid asshole. He didn’t even know how to read.” Or the vice prinicipal of a Thurston County high school where Jones worked as a janitor. “He started jacking me around. We’d be in a room, and his whole body language was like, ‘I’m gonna fuck you over and you can’t do anything about it.'”

“But he didn’t know,” Jones says. None of them knew. “How smart I was. And how, if you want to go the distance with me, there’s nothin’ I won’t do.”

If you are among the jerks who have furthered the pain in Thom Jones’ life, among the things he might do is snap your miserable ass into a short story that will be read by your grandchildren. The portrait will not be flattering. Because after five decades of a pug’s life, Thom Jones has discovered that revenge is best taken on the cold, smooth page.

Take “Tarantula,” one of the best stories in Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine, his new collection published by Little, Brown this month. It’s the story of a power-hungry vice principal and his reign of terror over a high school’s janitorial staff. The story turns on the vice principal’s pet tarantula, which a janitor kills in retaliation for being dicked around. Most fiction writers will go to great lengths to claim that what they write is not true. Thom Jones—ex-Marine, ex-boxer, ex-janitor, exNational Book Award finalist, and pound for pound perhaps the best short-story writer of his generation—is not one of them.

“Oh yeah,” he says. “He was based on a real guy. It’s true, he had a tarantula. I kinda figure if somebody crosses you, you better get him back. But there was no legal way I could get to him. He had me. He changed my hours, which meant suddenly the baby-sitting situation was totally fucked.” (Jones and his wife, a librarian at the school where he once janitored, have one daughter.) “He was really hitting me where I lived.”

At this point I’m expecting some sort of watered-down version of the story; he kidnaps the spider for a couple of days or something. Nothing doing.

“So I got drunk one night and went into his office and I picked up a pencil and I stabbed that fuckin’ spider, man. And it exploded! I didn’t know they were so charged, their little thoraxes—all this shit went all over the walls.” Jones says this without so much as a smirk. It’s his matter-of-fact way of telling you: I am capable of anything.

The capsule version of Thom Jones’ life so far: Spends youth boxing in Aurora, Illinois, steelworkers’ hall; joins Marines; gets whacked in Marine boxing match, gets epilepsy, gets discharged, gets reprieve from death in Vietnam. Goes to college, attends Iowa Writer’s Workshop, doesn’t write fiction for next two decades. Spends 1970s quitting and getting fired from various writing jobs (cf. Chicago, Selectric, window). Works in late 1980s as high school janitor outside Olympia. In early 1990s, inspired by Gulf War to write story for a Marine buddy killed in Vietnam. Said story, “The Pugilist at Rest,” written in a single day, becomes basis for National Book Awardnominated collection The Pugilist at Rest. Quits janitor job, spends rest of decade writing stories and movie scripts. Rubs elbows with literati, basks in glory.

There may be glory in Jones’ life now, but he’s quick to tell you there’s still little glamour. On a drizzly February morning he greets me at the door of his spacious new home dressed in sweatpants and a University of Iowa sweatshirt. He’s been working out in the three-car garage he uses as a gym. “My hands are all fucked up and I can’t hit the [heavy] bag, so I just do speed work,” he says. Jones is having a bad day. His insulin level is low, so his mouth is dry and his energy has tanked, and he’s still on pins waiting for the reviews of Sonny Liston to come in. “The critics have been nice so far,” he says about the reception given his two previous collections, The Pugilist at Rest (1993) and Cold Snap (1995). “But am I gonna get slammed this time? You worry about little stuff like that.”

His publisher has repeatedly urged him to write a novel (they make more money), but Jones has refused, sticking with the form that brought him to the big dance. It’s a decision that’s not without its risks. “With most story collections, it’s sort of like buying a CD,” he says. “If you get a couple of good cuts, you’re happy. Otherwise it’s a Frisbee. From me, they expect Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, where everything is a goddamn hit. If I have one story that falls down a little bit, I get trashed.”

He needn’t worry. Sonny Liston may not be a literary Sgt. Pepper, but it’s loaded with hits. “Tarantula,” which was shortlisted for the O. Henry Award, is joined by stellar pieces like “The Roadrunner,” about a group of Marine recruits enjoying some horizontal R&R in Tijuana before shipping out to Vietnam, and “40, Still at Home,” about a depressed and unemployed middle-aged man who steals his dead mother’s morphine. The latter story includes a memorable description of a typical Jones character—middle-aged, stuck in a decadelong losing rut, hungry for a crumb of happiness—hitting the narcotic jackpot: “Ensconced in the Slumber King, Matthew Billis, who had been so tormented by relentless depression, who had come to feel so bad that not even taking a shit felt good, and who was bereft of a single endorphin, waited for the buzz of a lifetime. It was a buzz with a wow factor of ten. He bore witness to a glorious lotus blossom of joy opening in his stomach that sent out radiant orange tidal waves of orgasmic ecstasy—waves that pulsed up through the base of his brain, to the roots of his hair, and back down his spine to his arms, legs, fingers, and heels. In every fiber and place of his being, Matthew felt bliss—bliss that he realized had been lying in wait all along. Oh! Whoa! Daddy!”

In another story, “Mouses,” Jones considers the nature of happiness from the point of view of a man who ain’t getting a lot of it: “Happiness is like the gold in the Yukon mines,” he writes, “found only now and then, as it were, by the caprices of chance. It comes rarely in chunks or boulders but most often in the tiniest of grains. I’m a free-floater now, happy to take what little comes my way. A grain here, a grain there. What more can you ask for?”

Given the hard times in his own career, it’s nearly impossible not to give into the authorial fallacy and interpret this as coming straight from Jones’ heart. “Happiness was never in the cards for me,” he says. “I learned that a long time ago. I was always kind of a depressed person. But I figure we all have our role to do.”

And yours is?

“My role?” he says. “Well. I didn’t go to Vietnam and I didn’t die. That makes you think fate’s looking out for you. But there never was a big victory. People tend to live in cyclical patterns, so you know if somebody’s gonna be a winner or not usually by the time they’re 18. All I did was little low-grade victories. Made the semifinals of the Golden Gloves, but couldn’t win. Got into Iowa, probably the summit of the early years. Then back to janitor, drunk, down down down.”

And then came the day in 1991 when it all turned around. In Jones’ writing room, just off the main entryway, the walls are decorated with an old recruiting sign—”The Marine Corps Builds Men!”—and the magazine covers that resulted from one of the most storied days in American publishing. It began when Jones was getting ready for work, which involved putting on a bowling shirt with Janitor embroidered on the breast. The phone rang. It was his agent.

The New Yorker just bought ‘A White Horse,'” she said.

“Yeah? Oh. That’s good,” Jones replied. That’s cool, he thought, and was happy for five minutes.

She called back. “Esquire just bought ‘Wipeout.'”

“Oh yeah? Great.” And now he’s gonna be late for work so he hustled out the door when the phone rang again and—

“Thirty years in this business,” his agent said. “This has never happened. Harper’s just bought ‘I Want to Live!'”

More than 20 years removed from his Iowa workshop years, it happened: Three stories, three magazines, 45 minutes.

“How do you suddenly, after 44 years of essential failure, become a winner?” he asks. “Well, boxing taught me how to address that problem. You access your subconscious mind; like in the corny world you’d say ‘visualize,’ or whatever. That’s what it boils down to: Going into a bookstore and imagining your book there. You get rid of all these self-defeating ideas, and you really work at it. Suddenly I’m violating the pattern—becoming not just a Seattle Review writer but a New Yorker writer who wins prizes and all that.”

Jones is determined to keep the pattern broken. “I’m gonna go all the way with this,” he vows. “There’s no limit. When I sit down, there’s no other writer who cows me. Norman Mailer, Tim O’Brien—forget it. Bob Stone? Forget it. Kill the motherfuckers. ‘Cause I’m gonna outwrite ’em.”

Bruce Barcott is the editor of Seattle Weekly‘s Books Quarterly.