Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine 
by Thom Jones.
Faber, 312 pp., £9.99, February 1999, 9780571196562
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Sonny Liston didn’t really have any friends. Not, at least, among the reporters covering his heavyweight title fight with Floyd Patterson in 1962. Intimidated by Listen’s criminal record and connections with organised crime, the press took his sullenness for the recalcitrance of an underworld brawler. The former heavyweight champion is no less threatening in Thom Jones’s two previous collections of short stories; though kept in the wings, he is mentioned frequently by the centre-stage characters: a doctor who is ‘about to smirk’ when walking in on a couple having sex in the hospital ward is arrested by the patient’s baleful stare – ‘Sonny Liston could give such a look’; a recently enlisted marine regrets his decision to join up when he meets boot-camp disciplinarians ‘most of whom looked like close relatives of Charles “Sonny” Liston’. Jones – a former boxer and Vietnam veteran – appears to give Liston a better part in the off-beat title story of his new, third collection. A young amateur boxer hoping to go forward to the Chicago Golden Gloves competition finds himself frustrated by the truculence of his stepfather and the indifference of his mother to almost everything but the application of the green paste of her nightly face mask: ‘Can’t you just say, “Good, I’m glad you won. You’ve made me a happy lima bean”?’ His optimism is revived by a trip to watch Liston training for the Patterson fight, where we finally come face to face with the fearsome boxer and the boy receives a signed photo: ‘To the Kid, from your friend, Sonny Liston.’ But a cornerman’s heavy-handed intervention (‘a man in a gray sweatshirt demanded two dollars each for the photographs’) and the boy’s subsequent failure in the ring stress the lessons of adult life that remain to be learned; the photo and the friendship are shuffled into the past.

Norman Mailer reported on the Liston-Patterson fight for Esquire in dispatches that were uncharacteristically equivocal. In his account, victory is Liston’s because Patterson fought like a man down with jaundice, but that does not prevent Liston from being praised as a modern Faust who knew that ‘when the gods gathered to watch an event, you kept your mind open to the devils who might work for you.’ In Cold Snap (1996), Jones showed a keen eye for the blackish tales of restless lives, lives that fall short despite a devil-may-care audacity. In ‘Pickpocket’, Chop-a-Leg, who has been deaf to medical advice (‘I had diabetes 12 years and wouldn’t quit smokin’), puts his faith in porridge to lower his cholesterol level: ‘I like looking at the Pilgrim on the box. What a happy guy, huh?’ The rosy-cheeked smile of the old Quaker contributes to his own skewed sense of well-being: ‘Already I have lost thirty pounds over and above the amputated leg ... I sleep like a baby. I’m a happy guy.’ In ‘Ooh Baby Baby’, Dr Galen, a Hollywood plastic surgeon, is a conjuror for the stars in a Californian version of self-development – ‘A few millimetres shaved off her nose, a couple of ounces of silicone “here and there” became a passport to an entirely new world’; in ‘Rocketfire Red’, Jones skilfully evokes an anonymous waitress’s rough-edged Australian vernacular as she transforms herself into a model by using the hair dye that becomes her moniker. These characters are overtaken by their desire for change. And so again the eponymous boxer from ‘Dynamite Hands’, who discovers among the ingenuities of his training routine a particular technique (‘it’s not a secret really, just something that went out of style’) that liberates energies of which he was unaware: ‘You won’t get big biceps, but one day, all of a sudden what you got is a pair of dynamite hands. That boom boom ... Pure TNT.’

Descriptions of the preparations for fights, which appear frequently, or the details of the fights themselves, recorded only occasionally, have the back-page economy of first-rate sportswriting. In Jones’s direct and percussive style we might expect to find echoes of the boxing heroes of Jack London or Hemingway. But Jones’s youths, caught up in their inchoate ambition, aren’t influenced by Hemingway’s stale, cheek-by-jowl prizefighters. The naturalism of London’s embryonic boxing novel, The Game, is shaped by its confidence in the determining effects of physical strength; it encourages the dream of self-fulfilment through stamina and hard work. Jones gives the lie to the familiar argument that boxing provides an outlet for the disadvantaged. For most, success remains elusive, as his boxers realise in adversity: ‘Kane Street was now free to pursue his other options – frying hamburgers, running for Congress, or whatever. At least he would no longer harbour illusions that he would become a fighting champion.’ London resists this conclusion, finding an unsatisfactory cause for Joe Fleming’s defeat in the femininity of the boxer’s nature. (The strands of London’s plot continue to fray at the end of the novel; the pathos of Fleming’s death in the ring is flattened by the caricature of Mrs Silverstein scolding the boxer’s fiancée: ‘Vot did I tell you, eh? Vot did I tell you? You vood haf a bruiser for your steady!’)

There are no old-fashioned heroics in Jones’s engaging story, ‘My Heroic Mythic Journey’, told in the first person. Making the weight for an approaching bout is unpleasant (‘Three days in a steam bath. Wake up in the night crying because of the thirst’). The spare prose hollows out the conventional euphemisms used to describe boxing (‘the noble art’, ‘the sweet science’). The narrator’s progress isn’t straightforward: from service in the Marines to brief success in the ring and a false insurance claim on a deliberately injured left hand, by way of tree-planting, orange-picking and a ‘bleach-bottle blonde’. In the absence of machismo there is a darkness to the emotional shading; victory is an empty satisfaction less important than the clarity to be found in preparation. ‘I liked to train. For me it was a holy experience,’ the narrator remarks. ‘I had found a kind of purity in my asceticism.’

In another version of rigorous self-discipline, a retired marine called Ondine details the finicky routine he undertakes before swimming the English Channel (‘the ocean swim by which all others are measured’). His goggles are rubbed with tobacco juice to prevent fogging, lanolin is spread over the vulnerable skin of the armpits and the crease of the neck, and his appearance is completed with ‘a top coat of VapoRub’. The experiences of Vietnam have left Ondine uprooted from ordinary life, distanced from those around him by a moral sensibility; his internal conflict is reflected in the narrative’s disconcerting sense of audience, the unnerving detachment with which the narrator refers to himself in the third person: ‘All alone in the sea: Ondine.’ (One of Jones’s characters says that pain is easier to deal with ‘if you pretended that it wasn’t real, if you pretended it was all on TV’.) So with claustral determination Ondine leaves from Shakespeare Beach for Cap Gris-Nez, hoping to find honesty in long-distance swimming and certainty in a life where ‘simple has turned confused.’ And what sort of solace can his swimming provide? Only the focus of the rush of fear, the primitive excitement of war: ‘Get the rhythm going ... Get a little high ... After the adrenaline of Vietnam, a six-pack ... just don’t cut it.’

A good many of the men and women in Jones’s fiction try to find a temporary release from pain in alcohol; but whisky, rum and tequila are soon replaced by headier cocktails. Medical complicity encourages drug-taking: Dr Vitias is prepared to ‘write a script for pain pills on almost any pretext’ in the over-extended story ‘You Cheated, You Lied’, where the subtlety of Jones’s swift scene-changes gives way to a 70-page narrative. Such piecemeal efforts to provide pain relief are shown to be a failure by Jones’s pervasive prescription-writing, as his stories provide a catalogue of psychotropic drugs that runs from Advil to Zoloft.

Music is no more of an anaesthetic. The epigraph that introduces Cold Snap is taken from the Book of Samuel: estrangement from the prophet leaves Saul with black moods that are only relieved by David’s lyre. But music for Jones’s characters is rarely restorative. Their Vietnam War is not fought against a mythic soundtrack of rock and roll. Only in desperation can the soldier coming to the end of 30 days’ mess duty hope ‘that Joan Baez would sing a sweet song to Lyndon Johnson’, encouraging the President to dispatch ‘Air Force One to pick up such an intelligent, sensitive and promising young man as myself, and send me to Harvard College on a free government scholarship after a two-week vacation at Camp David’; the laughter at the expense of ‘that wonderful, talented and elegant entertainer, Ms Baez’ comes more from anger than release. Jones’s characters do not share the sentiments of the songs they listen to – the wholesomely patriotic pop of Paul Revere and the Raiders, the breathy cover versions of the Shirelles or the doo-woppery of Little Anthony and the Imperials, dismissed by a rejected lover: ‘ “Tears on my pillow, pain in my heart”; that ain’t you.’

The greenhorns in Jones’s interconnected Vietnam stories avoid the boredom of an episodic war by reading Ring magazine and a variety of comic books. Action comics invite adolescents to identify with a masculine lore of super-heroism; but the window on adulthood they provide for the Marines does not reveal the realities of conflict. Aggressive, man-to-man combat is rare in Jones’s stories. They are concerned with strategies of guile – ‘outchucking Charles’ as a soldier operating across the supposedly neutral Cambodian border puts it. In ‘40, Still at Home’, Matthew Billis has lost his way, not in the jungles of Vietnam, but in a strangely deferred coming-of-age story. Unable to cope, he retreats to his childhood bedroom and sinks into depression: ‘a near-22-hour package of sleep from the last 24. A commendable feat!’ In a rare foray downstairs he decides to take a dozen of his mother’s carefully hidden morphine tablets: ‘the entire action was completed faster than Superman making a phone booth costume change.’ He is pitched into a torpor – ‘what a great inward laugh he laughed as he thought of it all’ – that intensifies his boyish spite.

Jones’s prose doesn’t seem gloomy or obscure because his writing is so frequently playful, full of internal jokes and references. In ‘I Love You Sophie Western’, Frankie Dell escapes the numbing repetition of a suburban high school day that is compartmentalised like the panels of a comic-strip – ‘Ever since he got out of bed his whole life had become a ludicrous cartoon’ – by working in the evenings at the local, two-screen cinema. He sells tickets for the films on show, Alfie and Tom Jones, and

as soon as Frankie completed cleaning the bathrooms, he got lost in the upper balcony. He turned to leave and there she was, triple-life-sized and Panavisioned up on the silver screen, the beatific vision of his life, Susannah York in the role of Sophie Western ... What a great world, how unlike his own, and, oh, Jesus, God, if ever there was a more beautiful woman than Sophie Western – well, there just couldn’t be.

The film fills him with enthusiasm – ‘he went to bed with Fielding’s novel. By dawn he was pencilling out a book report’ – and he falls for a girl from his geometry class, Suzie Trowbridge (‘Her eyes were like Sophie’s, and her hair, too’). Suzie feigns interest at first, but to Frankie’s dismay soon reveals her indifference: ‘I needed help with my English.’ Maybe reciting love poetry to her, the cinema projectionist suggests by way of consolation, wasn’t the right approach. ‘Alfie had the right idea, he said. Hadn’t he seen Alfie last night?’ But Frankie hadn’t; he had thought that wide-eyed enthusiasm need not be tempered by compromise. And like so many of Jones’s characters, he must try to reconcile himself to the disappointment of having invested in the wrong fantasy.

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