Thursday, October 20, 2011

Reading Rainbow: The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones

Having been given this book as a gift years ago, The Pugilist at Rest, a National Book Award finalist for fiction in 1993, puzzlingly sat on my shelf unread for at least five years. There is no real reason for this. It simply happened. Books were bought, placed on a shelf that had no room for them, covered by other books bought afterward, and buried behind front-stacked books.

Without prejudice I was unable to manage to get around to this book.

This was a mistake.

With a couple of minor exceptions, each short story in this collection is magnificent. There is a verve to his prose that is instantaneously engaging and nearly arresting. The characters jump off the pages, occupying a territory within a very real world without seeming too familiar. With many of the events and character traits clearly derived from personal experience, the stories (especially the Vietnam ones) ring true.

If there is a shortcoming, it is that Jones has issues inhabiting a female voice in the story "Unchain My Heart." Unlike the other story in the collection from a female point-of-view, "I Want to Live!" there is a knowledge of the character that seems at least somewhat deficient. Where "I Want to Live!" could conceivably have been told from the POV of a woman, the story of a female journalist smitten with a deep-sea diver simply comes across a man writing what he thinks a woman might think, which given the quality of work in the remainder of the vignettes is a bit of a disappointment.

What works is virtually everything else. The Vietnam material is the most gripping, but the stories "As of July 6..." "Wipeout," and "Unchain My Heart" are all damn fine pieces of short fiction. "Silhouettes" is also quite memorable and covers atypical territory in the form of a Special Ed student/janitor whose special lady friend is stepping out on him.

While cursed with the expectations that go hand-in-hand with being a National Book Award Finalist, The Pugilist at Rest does not fail to engage and enthrall. Upon finishing the book, one isn't possessed by an urge to question the selection committee, and that, in and of itself, speaks volumes.

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