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The Pugilist at Rest.

The eleven stories comprising this debut collection have an impressive history: within the space of a year, eight of them appeared in the New Yorker, Esquire, Harper's, Story, and elsewhere, and the volume's title selection deservedly took first place in the 1993 0. Henry Awards and was also reprinted in Best American Stories 1992. The dust jacket boosts are equally deserved, John Barth dubbing Jones "a remarkable new American writer" and Michael Herr praising the book's exploration of "the codes and rituals of what we call American manhood." Herr's comment targets one of the collection's thematic centers; another can be found in the remark of one of Jones's narrators: "human behavior, ninety-eight percent of it, is an abomination." Indeed, these two thematic points of reference often come together as the "codes and rituals" of American manhood prove responsible for many of life's abominable moments.

Organized into sections, the first three stories deal with Vietnam and conjure a "funny universe where God couldn't keep the faithful alive but the Devil could." A boxer and member of a Marine recon team, Jones's narrator - and many of the collection's stories feature essentially the same protagonist - finds in war as in boxing "the science of controlling fear" and a test of manhood that involves both taking and dishing out pain through the commission of "unspeakable crimes." Part two - which many readers will find hopelessly misogynistic - presents three stories of men (one from the woman's point of view) whose code of masculinity defines women as bitches to be seduced and left, often with their compliance. The three stories of part three are a more diverse group, turning to look through a son's eyes at his mother's rocky love life, a special-ed student whose limited life as a school janitor almost disappears when he falls for and marries the town slut, and a widow dying of cancer (this last almost too horrific in its details and bleak in its vision to bear). The two stories concluding The Pugilist at Rest tell of an ad man suffering, like the narrator of the Vietnam stories, from left-temporal-lobe epileptic seizures and a prizefighter's friendship with his washed-up trainer.

These are bleak, violent, crazed, butt-kicking stories of men and women - but mostly men - seeking psychic/spiritual balance in extreme, character-testing experiences. They are stories whose trying-to-get-straight vision of life comes out of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, whose work is quoted several times. Through it all, Jones's characters pay heavy prices to learn hard lessons: that, in or out of the jungle, in Vietnam or back in the World, the "best feeling" is that heady rush of the "primal man" who knows that it all boils down to "kill or be killed," that the best one can hope for is a tenacious hold on one's will to live despite the odds, despite the lack of good reasons to do so. If these stories are more than vaguely autobiographical, as I suspect them to be, they spring from a life I would not have wished on anyone, but it is one mark of Jones's power that he has been able to face up to and stare down that life and to connect with these eleven body blows. In The Pugilist at Rest readers will learn what Melville meant about shouting "No! in thunder" and what Leonard Cohen means when he talks about something that "looks like freedom but feels like death."
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Horvath, Brooke
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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