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?