Boxing clever

Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine

Thom Jones <em>Faber & Faber, 312pp, £9.99</em>

Thom Jones belongs to the American tradition in which the writer and the writing are inseparable. Every review or profile or television interview with the writer tends to recount the facts of his life like a mantra: that Jones is a Vietnam vet, a boxer, an epileptic who spent several years in psychiatric wards, a drop-out who worked as a high-school janitor.

Most of these experiences inform Jones' stories; and yet the one autobiographical subject that does not make it into his fiction is the master's degree in creative writing he received at the famous University of Iowa writer's workshop. It is not something that sits comfortably with the man-on-the-wild-side-of-things myth.

On the famous cover of Walt Whitman's epic Song of Myself is a drawing of an American working man that represented how Whitman wanted to be seen. The photograph on the inside back cover of Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine has a similar resonance: an atmospheric portrait of Jones with a boxer dog. Jones has his visible hand wrapped in cloth, the typical preparation of a boxer's hands before a fight. In the background are two pictures of fighters. So it follows that this man is hard and serious.

Yet Jones can write; he has a particularly powerful and original imagination. His language can be self-indulgent but it also has a rough poetry: "I am not the fool I sound," says a black Vietnam vet preparing to swim the English Channel. "I read books. I know things I can't express. Serious things." Above all, Jones is interested in his characters, mostly men, because, like the religious man or the boxer, they are "in the world but not of it".

Still, this collection is not as successful as his two previous offerings. The best story, "A Midnight Clear", follows a woman and her stepson, a doctor, on a Christmas visit to a relative in a psychiatric ward. Even this short summary should suggest the fertile possibilities in such a story for a writer of Jones's brutal realism. But too often he seems to be straining within the short-story corset, wanting to escape into the freedom of the novel. Several stories seem obviously part of longer narratives, without the structure or endings to make them satisfying in their present form.

So what of the long-promised Jones novel? The current dust jacket indicates that he is working on a novel - the same one, you ask, that he was working on when The Pugilist at Rest, his first collection of stories, was published in 1993, or something new? Whichever it is, the bell is ringing in his corner but there seems to be no movement from our man.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The police force we deserve?

Show Hide image

SRSLY #13: Take Two

On the pop culture podcast this week, we discuss Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth, the recent BBC adaptations of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Cider with Rosie, and reminisce about teen movie Shakespeare retelling She’s the Man.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen to our new episode now:

...or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on Audioboom, Stitcher, RSS and  SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s web editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The podcast is also on Twitter @srslypod if you’d like to @ us with your appreciation. More info and previous episodes on

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we'd love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

The Links

On Macbeth

Ryan Gilbey’s review of Macbeth.

The trailer for the film.

The details about the 2005 Macbeth from the BBC’s Shakespeare Retold series.


On Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Cider with Rosie

Rachel Cooke’s review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Sarah Hughes on Cider with Rosie, and the BBC’s attempt to create “heritage television for the Downton Abbey age”.


On She’s the Man (and other teen movie Shakespeare retellings)

The trailer for She’s the Man.

The 27 best moments from the film.

Bim Adewunmi’s great piece remembering 10 Things I Hate About You.


Next week:

Anna is reading Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.


Your questions:

We loved talking about your recommendations and feedback this week. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we've discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at], or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.



The music featured this week, in order of appearance, is:


Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 



See you next week!

PS If you missed #12, check it out here.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.