Thom Jones's first collection of stories is a revelation. In prose that sounds like nobody else, Jones channels a variety of distinctively different voices, from the lustful book editor of "Unchain My Heart" to the epileptic, amnesiac adman of the Dostoevskian fable "A White Horse." There's not a miss among these tales, but two in particular stand out: the title story, about a boxer and Vietnam vet who has plumbed the vicious depths of his own soul, and the almost unbearably intense chronicle of a woman fighting a losing battle with cancer, "I Want to Live!" "The world is replete with badness," says the aging fighter of "A Pugilist at Rest"; yet, as the narrator of "I Want to Live!" discovers, there is nothing stronger than the human will to go on, to persist--even in the face of the hell that exists right here on earth. It's not all gloom, doom, and napalm, however. There's also the surreal, Gogol-esque humor of "The Black Lights," in which the pysch-ward protagonist insists his only problem is epilepsy, yet hallucinates a giant, shuddering rabbit caught under his bed at night ("It's that rabbit on the Br'er Rabbit molasses jar. That rabbit with buckles on his shoes! Bow tie. Yaller teeth! Yaller! Yaller!") Then, too, Jones creates images of startling, surreal clarity amid the horror, like the dying lieutenant who remains on one knee even after being shot, "his remaining arm extended out to the enemy, palm upward in the soulful, heartrending gesture of Al Jolson doing a rendition of 'Mammy.'" Take a decidedly grim world-view, add a dose of existential slapstick, some Schopenhauer, an encyclopedic knowledge of pharmaceuticals, and a soundtrack by the Doors, and you have what may be the darkest, funniest, most urgent fictional debut in years.
This is a great collection of stories. I agree with many of the reviewers on Amazon that the first three stories, set in and after Vietnam, make the book. One could read these three stories and consider the book worth the time investment. The rest of the book is well written and memorable, delving into relationships, boxing, and Schopenhauer. Epilepsy figures into many of the stories, perhaps a reflection of "altered consciousness," a theme presented many times, induced by epilepsy, sex, drugs, knock outs, or death. Overall a great read. I liked it enough to buy another copy to share.