From Night Train: New and Selected Stories
“The Pugilist at Rest,” probably the most famous and most highly anthologized story by the American writer Thom Jones, who died in 2016, was rejected for publication by the Ontario Review, the literary quarterly then published by Joyce Carol Oates and her late husband, Raymond Smith. Oates thought the story was a “small masterpiece”; her husband disagreed, calling it “overlong and digressive.” Writing in The New Yorker, where Jones’s story eventually found a home, Oates admits that it “does daring things with narrative structure that one is taught not to do in many writing workshops,” though this does not detract from her admiration for the piece.
“Yes, for years, as Thom Jones published books to critical acclaim, I could not resist teasing my husband, who’d clearly made a glaring mistake,” writes Oates. “Yet, oddly, Ray still felt that the story was ‘overlong and digressive’ – so stubborn are some editors, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.”
But, pace Oates, her husband had a point. While perhaps not overlong, the story is digressive, including within it philosophical ruminations by everyone from Schopenhauer to Dostoevsky. And for a genre that prizes concision, the structure of “The Pugilist at Rest” is risky at best, at worst positively unwieldy. (Where a particular reader will fall in this assessment will depend on whether they share a closer affinity with Oates’s sensibility or Smith’s.)
The story is a triptych, following one U.S. Marine’s experience before, during, and after deployment to Vietnam. The first part of the story focuses on basic training; the second presents a vividly imagined scene of combat, in which the protagonist’s platoon is ambushed by the Viet Cong and he watches his comrades in arms get cut down in front of his eyes; the final section takes place at home, where the military vet suffers PTSD and a head injury sustained in the boxing ring. What rescues this approach from accusations that it lacks focus is a series of unifying principles that carry through the entire narrative. These include an ongoing engagement with violence – more specifically, the kind of hypermasculine violence that is pervasive in many military situations – and, most especially, the narrative voice of the soldier, which pervades the story and gives it life and cohesion.
This voice is highly specific, individual, and musical, and it lends the events of the story an aura of felt experience, which is quite remarkable given the fact that the author himself was never in Vietnam. “There are plenty of critics who have raved about Thom’s Vietnam stories,” writes Amy Bloom in the Introduction to Night Train, “exceptional feats of imagination from a man who, while a Marine himself, wasn’t actually there, having been prevented from deploying after suffering temporal-lobe epilepsy when he was soundly beaten in a boxing match.”
This detail from Jones’s biography is included in “The Pugilist at Rest,” in the closing frame of the triptych, which takes place after the protagonist has completed his tour of duty in Southeast Asia. “It was only fair that I got a head injury myself,” the narrator muses. “I never got a scratch in Vietnam, but I got tagged in a boxing smoker at Pendleton.” The beating his opponent – an infantryman in the U.S. army – lays down is merciless and leaves the narrator with permanent repercussions. “It felt like he was hitting me in the face with a ball-peen hammer,” the narrator says. “It felt like he was busting light bulbs in my face.” Here we have an example of Jones’s lambent prose style, which is simultaneously visceral and lyrical, as though gut and head are in perfect alignment.
We also have an instance of the digressions that Smith complained about. A year after the protagonist’s match with the artilleryman, he begins suffering seizures. “I suffered from a form of left-temporal-lobe seizure which is sometimes called Dostoevsky’s epilepsy. It’s so rare as to be almost unknown.” The narrator then spins off into an extended rumination about the Russian novelist that includes Freud’s assessment of his condition from afar and Dostoevsky’s own experiences of spiritual ecstasy and his belief in God. He then veers off yet again, into the notion that Saint Paul might have experienced an epileptic seizure on the road to Damascus, followed by a litany of other historical figures whose so-called visions might easily have been the product of epilepsy.
These sections are fascinating on their own, but there is good reason to suggest that they neither deepen the character of the central figure in the story nor move the story forward. They are, in one real sense, inessential, and thus lend credence to Smith’s impression of the story. Again pace Oates, it is difficult to say with complete certainty that in his assessment of the story, Smith had made “a glaring mistake.”
The head injury itself is central to the narrative, in both the irony of its occurring after the soldier returns home from the battlefield and in its symbolic resonance with other events in the story. During basic training, the narrator has a run-in with a fellow recruit known as Hey Baby (because he was sanctioned for writing a letter to his girlfriend that opened with the dedication, “Hey, Baby”). After Hey Baby moves on one of the narrator’s buddies during a training exercise, the narrator responds by busting him in the head with the butt of his M-16. “I was a skilled boxer, and I knew that the temple was a vulnerable spot.” This acknowledgement on the part of the narrator prefigures the injury that will sideline him later in the story.
The offences to characters’ bodies find their apogee in the middle section, where the ambush is described in vivid, scalding tones. The narrator assumes the role of observer as his fellow platoon members are mowed down by Viet Cong ordnance:
I assumed that Milton’s 16 had jammed, like mine, and watched as AK-47 rounds, having penetrated his flak jacket and then his chest, ripped through the back of his field pack and buzzed into the jungle beyond like a deadly swarm of bees. A few seconds later, I heard the swoosh of an RPG rocket, a dud round that dinged the lieutenant’s left shoulder before it flew off in the bush behind him. It took off his whole arm, and for an instant I could see the white bone and ligaments of his shoulder, and then red flesh of muscle tissue, looking very much like fresh prime beef, well marbled and encased in a thin layer of yellowish-white adipose tissue that quickly became saturated with dark-red blood.
Again, the reader is subjected to a potent verbal assault that mingles graphic violence with heightened, almost poetic language. The directness and unsentimental presentation prove difficult reading, but they are effective in placing the reader in the midst of the situation, inculcating an almost physical response.
On a more philosophical level, Jones’s narrator adheres to the author’s own heroes – Schopenhauer and Dostoevsky – in his existential approach to his experience. The title riffs off the Roman-era bronze statue of the same name, which the narrator, in another digression, imagines might be a representation of the Roman gladiator and boxer Theogenes. The narrator describes the Roman’s style of boxing as brutal and unrestrained by “kindergarten Queensbury Rules.” It was, by contrast, “a fight to the death,” not unlike what the U.S. soldiers experienced in the swamps and jungles of Vietnam.
The statue depicts the fighter in repose, before or after a fight. This mirrors the structure of Jones’s story, though it is clear that even once he is home, the narrator’s battles are far from over. “I wonder if Marcus Aurelius loved the ‘Pugilist’ as I do, and came to study it and to meditate before it,” the narrator thinks. The invocation of the Roman Emperor and noted stoic is telling in the way the narrator conceives of himself in the aftermath of war. It is also telling that when he does succumb to injury, it is to his head – the seat of all his learning and philosophy.
A battle between the world of the mind and the much grimier physical world of the body seems to be at the core of “The Pugilist at Rest.” The story takes undeniable risks and attempts something more ambitious than many conventional war stories. Some readers find it a masterpiece. Others decide it is overlong and digressive. Some, perhaps, see it as being both.