“A posthumous greatest hits collection” – Night Train by Thom Jones

25 years ago I read a collection of stories called The Pugilist at Rest. A couple of years after that, I read a second collection, Cold Snap. Four years after that a third collection, the exquisitely titled Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine. And then nothing. No further collection at any rate. (There is a page at the back of Night Train that shows Jones continued to periodically put stories out but they appeared in Playboy for the most part and, hey, I’m not a subscriber.) To all intents and purposes, Jones became a writer like Jim Dodge or, more recently, Sam Savage (writers I like who seem to have stopped publishing). And then, in 2016, he passed away. Rachel Kushner, reading Jones’ story ‘The Black Lights’ from The Pugilist at Rest in The New Yorker‘s fiction podcast, admitted that, given Jones’ ill health, she was surprised he lasted as long as he did. The ill health is front and centre in a lot of his stories – he had temporal lobe epilepsy, maybe as a result of the boxing he undertook while he was a marine. By the time you get to ‘Diary of My Health’, one of seven previously uncollected stories in Night Train,

“All I do is sleep. Jesus, I used to have to do things, but now life revolves around Crohn’s disease, prostate trouble, heart-burn, epilepsy, a hundred million problems.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. What is Night Train? It’s essentially a posthumous greatest hits collection with seven brand new tracks. Now. Those words “posthumous greatest hits collection” fill me with sadness. I would much rather have no new Thom Jones’ stories and have Thom Jones still in the world with the promise of a new collection at some point than have a posthumous greatest hits collection in my hands. That’s the kind of contrary book nerd I am. In the 17 years of ostensible silence between Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine and his death, I read each of these three books a couple more times. I would say I very much got the flavour of what constituted a Thom Jones’ collection. You have war stories, like ‘The Roadrunner’ and ‘A Run Through the Jungle’, and boxing stories like the eponymous title story of his third collection (and, of course, war-boxing stories like ‘The Pugilist at Rest’, the aforementioned ‘The Black Lights’ and ‘Pot Shack’), stories set in educational environments (like ‘Silhouettes’ and ‘Tarantula’), stories of poverty-stricken sorts (like ‘I Want to Live!’, which was selected for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, and the bleak corruption of ’40, Still at Home’), stories filled with African flavours like ‘Way Down Deep in the Jungle’, parts of ‘Daddy’s Girl’, parts of ‘Cold Snap’. There are stories with what you might call propulsive narratives (such as ‘Mouses’) and stories that are more meandering, more character driven (such as ‘Superman, My Son’ and ‘Daddy’s Girl’).

Superficially, you might say that Thom Jones, as a writer, has a lot of things in common with Denis Johnson. For instance, you read the following from ‘I Need a Man to Love Me’, you could be reading anything in Jesus’ Son:

“She looked at her pills: her cache of Librium, glossy black and green capsules – five hundred or more; Valiums in blue; Xanax all pearly white; red and gray Darvons; Ludiomils in good-morning-sunshine orange; tricolored Tuinal in red, redder, and baby blue; drab brown Triavil in the 4-10 proportion; there were pasted orange methadone diskets (just two); some chalk-white meprobamate in the generic – wipe-you-for-sure;…”

There are other examples. That aforementioned ’40, Still at Home’ is a very Denis Johnson Thom Jones’ story. As are ‘Mosquitoes’. ‘A White Horse’. ‘Cold Snap’. Very Denis Johnson Thom Jones’ stories all. There are overlaps. The circle of Thom Jones and the circle of Dennis Johnson overlap in a Venn diagram sort of way. But then there is also a sense that Jones is (or was) a slightly less contemporary writer. There are stylistic similarities with a writer like James Jones (author of The Thin Red Line), Frank O’Hara and even, at times, Charles Bukowski. Which isn’t to say that Thom Jones is dated and more to admit that he has a concrete position in a certain kind of aspiring blue collar aesthetic. Here he is, for example, in one of the new stories, ‘Night Train’, that conjures a picture as vivid as Edward Hopper:

“The night crew at the Durabilt had thirty minutes for lunch. Mag would slice cold cuts for them and dish up salads. They liked to congregate around the pop cabinet, comb back their slick ducktails, smoke, and posture while the Italian girls from the neighbourhood came in wearing their shorts in hot weather. Or, if the men weren’t scoping, they would sit out on the front porch talking sports or playing grab-ass.”

Of the new stories themselves, in addition to what you’d expect from a Thom Jones’ story (‘All Along the Watchtower’, say, which concerns a young feckless sort and his attempts to make a fast buck), there are stories here that see him trying out different modes – such as ‘A Merry Little Christmas’ which is a one-sided collection of emails that now, effectively, functions as a horror story for the #metoo age, and ‘Diary of My Health’, another horror story in its own way and a possible explanation as to why Jones only wrote as much as he did.

Reading a posthumous collection like this also casts a different colour on some stories I’d read before. Last words to Jones himself, from the story ‘Mouses’, which was part of Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine:

“When the space invaders take over, it’s the end of the human era. Before that happens, I want to get in a few good times – travel to Ireland, learn how to dance, take tuba lessons, who knows. Happiness is like the gold in the Yukon mines, 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?”

You get to the end of Night Train, you think about the 17 years of publishing silence Jones had and you read that final paragraph from ‘Mouses’ and you hope Jones found himself some happy in that time. He certainly deserved it.

Any Cop?: As an introduction to Thom Jones, it’s pretty damn great. As a final tip of the cap, it’s noteworthy and respectable to his legacy. And as an entertainment, as a collection of stories in their own right, it’s up there with the best.

 

 

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