A generous posthumous selection from Jones' (1945-2016) three short story collections along with seven new works.
In a humorous new story mainly about infidelity (“A Merry Little Christmas”), the narrator says of his novel in progress, “I’ve got the voice down and the characters have taken on a life of their own.” Jones (Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine, 1999, etc.) has a distinctive voice that comes through often in raw, direct, almost driven language, as if he felt short of time. His mostly blue-collar characters were often fiercely alive, whether he was writing about soldiers, boxers, victims, or miscreants. Many fans discovered that voice with “The Pugilist at Rest,” the title story of his first collection (1993), as its narrator works through Marines boot camp, Vietnam deployment, the Greek gladiator Theogenes, a boxing injury, and the shifting truths behind heroism. Jones often depicted—and showed extraordinary empathy for—characters alone in extreme situations, those who “knew what it was like to fall back into the inner darkness of the self,” like the woman with muscular dystrophy contemplating for one awful paragraph how slowly time moves for her. The shattering “I Want to Live!” describes a woman’s endurance of cancer treatments. It’s not all misery. There’s an edgy humor in “Tarantula,” in which a cocky high school administrator tries to handle defiant custodians, partly with a scary spider. In “Mouses,” a man with a spinal deformity ("a hump") evolves from having a minor rodent problem to performing dubious experiments on caged mice. In the end, though, on the last page of the last story, there’s the dialysis patient asking "Can someone tell me why life is so hard," followed by a paragraph of pain and the possible comfort of a Chopin waltz.
Jones is uneven, but at his best he offers a poignant, compelling view of the human condition.