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Book Review: Sonny Liston Was A Friend Of Mine by Thom Jones

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When reading the postmodern preenings of a Rick Moody or David Foster Wallace there is always a suspicion that behind the poses there might be a writer capable of an occasionally compelling sentence or metaphor, and that they simply choose imposture instead because of hubris or lack of self. With Thom Jones’ writing there is no such suspicion at all. He’s simply a bad writer.

How this — well, to call him a hack would be to convey that he was capable of what I just denied, so let’s call him a troglodyte; yes, troglodyte! No, that’s too rough. If PoMo writers are fey, he’s neolithic. That’s it! How this neolith not only got into print, but has also been lauded and awarded (his first book, The Pugilist At Rest, was a National Book Award finalist), acts as an object lesson in why demoticism in the arts is a terrible thing. After all, what published book isn’t nominated for some half-baked award?

Sonny Liston Was A Friend Of Mine is apparently Jones’ third short story collection, released in 1999, and follows mostly pugs, mugs, and losers, in a very masculist style of writing. But, Jones is no Hemingway — not even close, although Jones claims literary descent from him. And this comes from someone who thinks old Papa was vastly overrated.

Instead, he writes pretty much as you might think someone who proudly declaims he was an ex-Marine, ex-boxer, and ex-janitor would write. And that’s no slur — I’ve cleaned many a toilet in my three decades-plus of working, but I can create compelling poems, stories, characters, narratives. Jones writes — and, hell, let me go for the easy stuff just this once — like a guy who has been shell-shocked, punch-drunk, and inhaled too much ammonia and bleach together. His writing is horrible at worst, with only a dozen or so moments in the book that even rise above tedium.

I am used to Postmodern crap, PC crap, Romance-level crap, but this is just plain old bad, bad writing 101. And the editing of the book is bad, as well. I’m not talking deliberate colloquial misspellings of ‘want to’ as wanna, or the like, but misspelling simple words, with no attempt at rendering a character’s accent. Even the grammar and punctuation in this book is bad.

About the only thing Jones can claim is that he tackles topics no other published writer does. In fact, this was why I bought the book — for its title — as I have always been a big Sonny Liston fan. But, instead of even refried Ring Lardner I got comic book level writing — and not that of modern graphic novels, but that of the 1950s Comics Code level.

The first, and titular, tale is a good example, as it wastes a cameo appearance by Liston, who does not even make a good metaphor, and cops out for the clichéd victory in the end, and then adds to that with the boxer suddenly realizing that this lifestyle of his must end. I mean it. It really does that. And, worse, its characters all speak in affected dialogue that seems culled from a leftover reel of a bad Rocky sequel.

The next tale, The Roadrunner, is a stew of clichés, stereotypes, and ends with the sadism of a Vietnam-era soldier, just before heading over to the shit, setting the bird on fire. I was reminded of the stereotyped bunch of grunts from the film Saving Private Ryan.

Worse, the only point of the tale seems to be as a set up to a meager ‘revelation’ in the next tale — A Run Through The Jungle, which is just a bad tale featuring some of the same characters from The Roadrunner. Here’s what passes for irony in Jones’ book: the GI who dies in this tale, via his own phosphorus grenade burning from within, is the guy who torched the roadrunner from the prior tale. Revelation, my brother, revelation! Ain’t that, like, real Old Testament?

Fields Of Purple Forever also has the same characters, but strikes a potentially good metaphor by having one of the characters be a long-distance swimmer. Then, it does nothing with the character, nor metaphor. 40, Still At Home has a nice premise — a middle-aged loser is tossed out by his old mom, who then dies of cancer. Then the loser breaks into her home, finds his mom dead, tosses her in a freezer, and then drinks beer and watch tv. Here’s what passes for depth in Jones’ tale: ‘I can’t do it anymore.…I can’t hack it out there in middle-management hell… in your day people were still human.’ I guess you file this tale under the ‘I wanted to show how dull a life this loser led, so I did’ category.

Here’s some more of Jones’ sterling prose:

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.

Great – clichés and posing. From a seventeen year old, perhaps ok stuff. From a fiftysomething (which he was at the time)- oy vey!

Excelsior! Tarantula, Mouses, and A Midnight Clear are all too long, and deal with things of little consequence — unless the spider-killing in Tarantula turns you on. Or, perhaps Mouses’ hunchbacked engineer with a God Complex, who tortures mice after getting fired? Here is what passes for insight in this tale: ‘Apparently, ‘Don’t shit where you eat’ isn’t in the rodent codebook. Hygiene is not a big concern with them.’ Daddy’s Girl is only slightly better because its last sentence is a good and evocative one – perhaps the best in the book, as it follows the reflections of a ninetysomething woman on her life. Here is what passes for reflection in this tale: ‘You have to believe like a little child. Believe it because it’s impossible.’

Then we come to a tale that could have been written by a bad sportswriter who could never latch on to do a Sports Illustrated feature story. My Heroic Mythic Journey is as bad as it Joseph Campbellian title, and follows a boxer’s descent from World Champion to terribly clichéd loser that spouts even worse clichés. It is a terrible exhibition of bad writing that should have never seen print.

Even worse is I Love You, Sophie Western, which ends with possibly the most ridiculously bad story end ever published — a straight teen guy who is a drug addict getting dickslapped, skull-fucked, and told to ‘swallow’ by a pedophile! This shows that Jones is not afraid to show his feminine side, I guess. The seventy-five page novella You Cheated, You Lied is about — BINGO! Exactly what it seems to be about — a bad relationship — save it includes insane asylums and Hawaii. It’s, at best, a passable five-page story.

Some critics have called Jones’ prose style ‘zippo prose’, meaning nothing more than the basics. These same critics also feel there’s something significant to the fact that modern boxing matches go twelve rounds and there are a dozen tales, too. Wow! That’s like- symbolism, dude? I’d say the zippo portion accurately reflects the fact that there is nothing offered in the tales.

I do not know whether Jones’ prose is part of his pugilist act or not. If it is, he should drop it, as he’s a sexagenarian now. He’s old, and so is his schtick — even though magazines like the New Yorker and Gentleman’s Quarterly inexplicably think this crap is publishable. Jones simply lacks range, insight, and most of all — the ability to write engaging sentences.

Jones also has a tin ear for convincing dialogue — his pugs somehow are able to have moments that only Woody Allen dilettantes should have, no idea when a story has hit its apex — he consistently violates the wise dictum of not having the climax less than ninety percent of the way into a tale, for his tales drag terribly with events that do not serve the narrative, then often just wheeze to an end that is not really an end.

Only in this age, where there are far too many writers, and far too few editors, could this garbage have gotten published. Yet, he’s merely a symptom of the problem. It is those who foist the Thom Joneses of the world upon us that are the real problem. They have abdicated even the barest of their duties — as I said, this book is rife with typographical, grammatical, and plain old spelling errors. As well as containing the mentally ill, unemployed, drug abusers, drinkers, psychotics, veterans, and sciolists — often with one character toting three or more of these traits. Yet, not a drop of insight.

The old saying is that ‘everyone has a story’, and Jones believes this. And it is true. But, not everyone has an interesting story, and, for those without, a good writer is needed to tell their tales. Jones lacks characters with real stories and is simply not the man to tell their tales. He wants his tales to be macho and scary, but instead, they come off as the rantings of a big, dumb loser that the young kids tease as he impotently rages at them that he was once, ala Terry Malloy’s lament, ‘a contenduh’. No. He was always just a big dumb palooka. The upside is that better writers have written of that type far better than Jones. Find them, and let Jones return to his mop and bucket. Wring hard, now!

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About Dan Schneider

  • Marcus Miller

    I thought Thom Jones book Sonny Liston was a friend of mine was a great book. Every story was either funny or sad or insightful. I bought several copies and gave thenm to friends who all agreed it was a powerful book.

  • KitC

    Jealous much? Go back to working at a grocery store.

  • Gus Vanz Aunt

    really? Making fun of the guy for working as a janitor?

  • Milton Bradley

    No. You sir, are the bad writer (and a former grocery clerk).

  • KC

    Really? Mocking him because he was a janitor? He has an MFA from Iowa during the heydey and published in the New Yorker among others. Where were you published? NOWHERE, you hack blogger!!!