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The Stuff of Excess : If Thom Jones is the current short-story god, what's the form coming to? : COLD SNAP: Stories, By Thom Jones (Little, Brown: $19.95; 228 pp.)

August 06, 1995|Benjamin Weissman | Benjamin Weissman is author of the story collection, "Dear Dead Person" (High Risk Books/Serpent's Tail). He teaches writing at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design

One thing I'm certain of is that I've got to be totally wrong about my difficulties with Thom Jones. He's one of the most popular story writers in the country right now, not for doing anything new (if contemporary fiction ain't broke, why fix it?), but for reviving an all-American genre, macho fiction. Tough-guy stories with a twist. The secret: Give all the ruffians or their partners some type of disorder. That makes 'em vulnerable. Like the ailing triceratops in "Jurassic Park," there's nothing more moving than a weepy incapacitated brute. It's our only way to get close to them, and gosh darn it, monsters need love too. Jones' gallery of black sheep includes a diabetic, an epileptic, a malaria sufferer, a manic depressive Jesus freak on lithium, and literature's favorite, a selection of drunks. Is that a great formula or what? Yes, it must be great, the world knows better than I do.

Taking major, lonely exception to a story collection that's been raved about in print and among your smartest reading friends is the kind of thing that makes you feel not only wrong but insane. What's my problem? It's not that Jones takes advantage of these poor souls, his characters. They want to be taken advantage of, badly, they're greased and ready. It's just that they often end up sounding so false that when and if one drops dead of a heart attack it's about as disturbing as a drink of water.

He's very good at ending stories. In fact you could say he's a conclusion expert. Each narrator vacates his mental tract by expelling an epiphany, getting a tad ironic and giddy, and then adios . The parting words, the best lines in his work, are the right touch. At the end of "Pickpocket": "The spider, what it wants more than hamburger is that I should light a cigarette and blow smoke at her so she can suck it in through her spiracles and get some nicotine on her brain. Gets this look like, 'Come on, baby, drive me crazy!' It's just a tiny spider brain. Say, 'Jes' a little puff would do it, mah man.' But I look at the spider and say, 'Suffer, darlin?! It's for ya own good. Take it from a man who knows.' " The socko endings are the definition of what an O'Henry award-winner should sound like. Spin you around at the end, kick you in the pants, drop something, maybe even throw in a kiss. Jones won the award in 1993.

Most of Jones' characters are all big on living and self-medicating. He's an expert on the effects of many types of pain killers and antidepressants; gets to show off pharmacologic knowledge, and it's genuinely interesting, as well as his tonnage of detail about Africa, cars and boxing. He's got that all down. I do believe that Thom Jones is an honest writer who throws himself completely into every story. His heart is very much in his work.

Jones' stories are often described as having a brutal, terrifying vision of the world, but none of them are nearly as devastating as the local news. Jones might be high-impact but that has more to do with the pitch of his voices. His characters' veins are popping out to make it clear who they are, but they all have a similar, speedy, used car salesman bravado. Another key ingredient is energy. It's a page performance, but there's too much exertion going on. He's going for the vivid realistic person but he seems committed to making self-conscious charmers.

The stories in Jones' first book, "The Pugilist at Rest," are much more contemplative than the tales in "Cold Snap." They're not trying so hard to win you over. "Pugilist's" narrators are grounded and thoughtful, the stories far more inventively structured. "Cold Snap" is frenetic, the game plan appearing to be: Blurt out whatever crosses your mind. Free form and free fall, it's supposedly real-people-speak. The hyperactive characters that incessantly blab their stories out are very articulate about their particular world, it's just that the sentences are not surprising and that's odd for how volatile the characters speaking are. Nor are the sentences especially beautiful. You never look back to see how Jones did something language-wise, unless it's because confusion has set in.

In being down with his people, Jones goes for the speech patterns of characters who are black, Latino, Mississippi Southern, and a one-fourth aboriginal girl. In this way "Cold Snap" is like a bad party. A windbag corners you and won't stop talking. As you hear him out he's either putting you to sleep or alarming you with strange remarks. Here's how a Latino talks: "Here come Juan, look at heem go, mon." Or a Southern man named Mississippi with three teeth who pronounces boy boah , get gait , and soda sar'dah. Or the aborigine woman with an intense Australian accent. You try another story and the same thing happens. Instead of a cerebral oddity you get a standard hysterical thought, characters saying pretty much what you'd expect.

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