The Pugilist at Rest: Thoughts on Thom Jones' Boxing Masterpiece

Fightland Blog

By Nick "The Tooth" Gullo


I’ve always held dear the maxim: Journalists deal in facts, writers deal in truth.

Why? Because I’m not a journalist. I don’t particularly care what fighters or industry reps have to say. I’ve seen the PR game from every side—in front of the curtain, from the side and behind the curtain—and I know when that microphone goes hot they start yapping solely to pump their careers, or sell tickets, or hawk walk-out shirts, training gear, supplements.

Blah, blah, blah.

That’s why, whenever I roam through a bookstore, it’s always in the fiction aisle I end up.

Of course, as a fan of the fight game I enjoy books that delve into pugilism. But I’m not particular, because whether the backdrop is war, crime, or boxing, all great writing mulls the same eternal question: What the fuck are we really doing here?

Peel back the layers and it’s really that simple.

That simple, but for some reason no acclaimed writers have delved into boxing in, I don’t know, nearly twenty years. Of course there were those great pieces by Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, Norman Mailer, and Joyce Carol Oates.

But I’m talking about Thom Jones, who burst onto the literary scene in 1993 with his collection of short stories, The Pugilist at Rest.

Mopping floors as a janitor, Jones, who years earlier earned an MFA from Iowa University, sent a short story to The New Yorker. The editors loved it, printed it, and soon his stories appeared in Harper’s and Esquire.

Understand, this is the big leagues for short stories. Jones was an overnight sensation. The new Hemingway. Except the guy was well into his forties, not uncommon for a writer to find his voice. But what’s rare is that Jones served in the Marines during Vietnam, and he grew up boxing. Which led to brain trauma, blackouts, and severe epileptic seizures.

Telling a reporter for the SFGate how he received the scar between his eyebrows, Jones described a bout with another Marine: "He hit me there. He broke my eye socket, broke my eardrum. But the worst thing is that he tagged my jaw and wrenched my neck. To this day, I feel arthritic when I'm typing."

Jones served his time in the gym, and it shows on the page. He writes about real boxing. As in, life away from the lights and cameras, where fighters live hand to mouth, struggling with injuries, black spots on the brain, stricken with severe depression and in mental institutions.

It ain’t pretty.

But peel back the layers and you realize that’s Jones’ take on life.

Which is why his characters repeatedly quote that bleak philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who held that fortune and good health are just a fleeting distraction, and sooner or later we all end up alone and broken, staring into the eternal abyss.

In the short story for which the book is named, the narrator recalls a boxing match in which he was badly beaten:

“I stumbled outside, struggling to breathe, and I headed away from the company area towards Sheepshit Hill, one of the many low brown foothills in the vicinity. Like a dog who wants to die alone, so it was with me. Everything got swirly, and I dropped in the bushes.

“I was unconscious for nearly an hour, and for the next two weeks I walked around like I was drunk, with double vision. I had constant headaches and seemed to have grown old overnight. My health was gone.

“I became a very timid individual. I became introspective. I wondered what had made me act the way I acted. Why had I killed my fellowmen in war, without any feeling, remorse, or regret? And when the war was over, why did I continue to drink and swagger around and get into fistfights? Why did I like to dish out pain, and why did I take positive delight in the suffering of others? Was I insane? Was it too much testosterone? Women don’t do things like that. The rapacious Will to Power lost its hold on me. Suddenly I became to feel sympathetic to the cares and sufferings of all living creatures. You lose your health and you start thinking this way.

“Has man become any better since the times of Theogenes? The world is replete with badness. I’m not talking about that old routine where you drag out the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, Joseph Stalin, the Khmer Rouge, etc. It happens in our own backyard. Twentieth-century America is one of the most materially prosperous nations in history. But take a walk through an American prison, a nursing home, the slums where the homeless live in cardboard boxes, a cancer ward. Go to a Vietnam vets’ meeting, or an A.A. meeting, or an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. How hollow and unreal a thing is life, how deceitful are its pleasures, what horrible aspects it possesses. Is the world not rather like a hell, as Schopenhauer, that clearheaded seer – who has helped me transform my suffering into an object of understanding – was so quick to point out? They called him a pessimist and dismissed him with a word, but it is peace and self-renewal that I have found in his pages.”

That’s pure gold.

Unfortunately, Jones lived by that other infamous maxim: Write what you know.

Suffering from a myriad of health problems, including seizures and diabetes, he published very little. After The Pugilist at Rest (1993), he released just two more collections of short stories, Cold Snap (1995), and Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine (1998).

They’re each a masterpiece of literature, and by that I mean you’ll laugh, cry, and cringe in disgust. Pick ‘em up, starting with Puglist. I can’t recommend Jones enough.


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Pain Don't Hurt: Nick "The Tooth" Reviews Mark Miller's Biography