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Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine

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Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine is a collection of short stories by Thom Jones published in 2000. I feel guilty about not having read much of Jones before. He is an author from the Pacific Northwest who I know a little from having attended conferences and readings he also attended. Of more importance, he has been a writer other writers consider someone to watch for years. So, I really don’t have an excuse for having neglected him.

Some of the stories in Friend are set in Vietnam, during the war. They focus on the men in a Marine reconnaisance squad. This is not the war as politics. It is the war of hallucinations, foot rot and killing that is as likely to be uncalled for as it is to be soldiering. I find myself comparing the gritty details of a real war to recent U.S. invasions. As far as I know, there is no literature of the Gulf War. Nor do I think there will be a literature of the latest invasion of Iraq. Why? It seems to me that war writing requires the larger conflict be epic, even if epicly wrong. That requires real ‘warring.’ Those invasions pit Goliath against
David, with David not standing a chance. They are a boxing match between Mike Tyson and Steven Hawking. A shooting contest between a blowgun and a cannon. So, the soldiers are not caught up in conflicts of man against society or man against himself. The reasons veterans have to question their involvement in Vietnam probably do not cross the minds of most contemporary veterans and active duty personnel. The sell of war as computer game may have succeeded too well.

One of the more striking stories in the collection is “Fields of Purple Forever.” The protagonist, Ondine, is a veteran of the reconnaisance squad, whose ankles, broken when an escape plane was shot down, trammel him on the ground. But, in the water he is merman. He has taken up long distance swims, including the English Channel. Naked but swathed in Vick’s Vapor Rub he reenters the primordial element of humankind — and belongs there.

On land, Ondine lives with ghosts, something he began to do in Vietnam, where he was almost murdered by angry villagers armed with pitchforks and hatchets, and raped and killed randomly himself. But, he realizes the ‘beast’ is not just himself, viewing his fellow men and women with a wary eye.

But what do they want? Why is it they falsify to you, and why is it you falsify back? You got to do it. I know it. One day they might whip out a guitar and sing “We are the children of the world,” and then, when they can’t think of nothing better, they start fighting each other. Hard to sort things out. Peoples are half devils. Three-quarters. I live among them, but I don’t have the first clue.

This is a short story that should not work. The protagonist is not engaged in fighting anything other than the genreal horde he describes and he does that in a removed way in the actual time of the story. He seldoms interacts with other people. The dialogue is limited to an exchange with a customs inspector. But, the character alone is enough to carry the story. The reader becomes intensely interested in what Ondine thinks and does. It take a master of the genre to pull that off. Jones is a master of the genre.

I also want to draw your attention to the last story in the collection, “You Cheated, You Lied.” This relatively long narrative is about the patients who frequent a third-rate neurologist’s office, particulary two of them, a manic-depressive and an epileptic boxer who meet there and fall in love. Jones’ captures the intersection between neurological illnesses and mental illnesses. (They often are so closely related there are dual diagnoses.)

He also reproduces the sped-up quality of some patients with neurological/mental health disorders. For example, an ALS victim can go from behaving normally to being unable to do more than blink his eyes in six months, with concomitant changes psychologically. The couple who are the focus of the story are like a whirling dervish. Just when you think their trail of mayhem is about to end, they get new energy and take off again. I recommend “You Cheated, You Lied,” to anyone interested in realistic writing about people suffering neurological/mental health illnesses, which definitely are illnesses. I doubt it has been much anthologized because of its length, but the story provides grounds in itself for purchasing Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine.

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  • cur3t

    “the sell of war as computer game may have succeeded too well.”

    mac diva nailed the civilian cyber-patriots here on blogcritics spot-on.

  • SFC Ski

    Before I go any further, I will say this looks like a good book, thanks.

    “As far as I know, there is no literature of the Gulf War.” Jarhead by Anthony Swofford is not fiction, but it is worth reading, if only to get inside the head of ONE Marine involved in that conflict. I will grant you that the Gulf War was possibly too brief, and a bit too cut and dried, to produce the equivalent great works following WWII, if you mean works considered classics like “The Naked and the Dead” or “Catch-22″. The Korean War did not produce all that many great works, AFAIK, either, though M*A*S*H comes to mind. THen again, satires base on human foibles and bureacracy have a somewhat timeless quality and need only a seeting to be placed in. Vietnam has produced some great works, in my opinion, Tim O’Brien’s “The Things they Carried” and JOe Haldeman’s “1968” and “War Year” to name a few. I think they point out that any war is intensely disturbing on an emotional level, and that many respond by becoming detached and ambivalent, until much later.

    “Nor do I think there will be a literature of the latest invasion of Iraq. Why? It seems to me that war writing requires the larger conflict be epic.” I disagree on the literature standpoint, I think it will take some time for a great work to emerge, also, one of the earmarks of a great work is its ability to stand the test of time. “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is recognized as great literature, but the Spanish Civil War was hardly epic compared to war it preceded. It just takes the right author to write about any war you choose to make it a great work.

    “That requires real ‘warring.’ ” THe fallacy of romanticized war. Any conflict in which soldiers are shooting and being shot at is “warring”, even if it is page 6 below-the-fold news to the rest of the world.

    “The reasons veterans have to question their involvement in Vietnam probably do not cross the minds of most contemporary veterans and active duty personnel.” The fallacy of the Soldier-as-Cipher, an everyman who is no man, and these days, woman. The Soldiers in this conflict are real people, with lives and families outside the conflict. I know for a fact that while many of them have families that support them fully, there are also many who have family and friends who do not support this war, or their involvement in it, myself included. Don’t you think that causes both internal and external conflict, a questioning, if only momentarily, of the endeavor they are part of? One cannot pigeonhole the vets of this or any other conflict.

    “The sell of war as computer game may have succeeded too well.” Only to those who watch it on TV, the soldiers on the ground have no such illusions. One needs only survive a mortar barrage or a firefight to realize that there are no “Save Game” or replay options there.