Thom Jones and the Cosmic Joke

The Seattle Times
April 12, 2000
By Alex Tizon

MAYBE THIS WAS something that happened to ex-janitors, one of their secret compulsions. Maybe it was an epileptic seizure. In any case, he could not resist. The floor needed sweeping, and the dust-sweeper was there, leaning against a wall, seductively, and before he could be stopped, Thom Jones was sweeping the floor and evidently liking it.

“So quiet,” he said, marching the length of the cafeteria, pushing that two-lane sweeper like a pro. “So peaceful.”

Finished, he replaced the sweeper, dusted off his hands and resumed the tour of his old janitorial routine at North Thurston High School in Lacey. He was a night custodian here for almost a dozen years, B.P., or Before Pugilist.

“The Pugilist at Rest,” his 1991 short story in The New Yorker, was a watershed event, the kind every writer dreams about. Pugilist won the O. Henry Award and was the top story in the Best American Short Stories 1992. He signed a two-book, $50,000 contract with Little, Brown and Co. His first book, of the same name, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Before Pugilist, he was unknown and unpromising. Nine years After Pugilist, the ex-Marine, ex-boxer, ex-janitor and 55-year-old Olympia resident is the author of three critically acclaimed books, including the recently released “Sonny Liston Was A Friend of Mine,” a multiple award winner, a Guggenheim fellow and the heir apparent, some say, to Raymond Carver as the pre-eminent short-story writer in America. He went from full-time custodian to full-time star instructor at the star-studded Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

But doggone if he doesn’t miss his old job. At least that’s how he felt at the moment. Maybe it wasn’t the old job exactly, but the old life that surrounded the old job. That life allegedly was simpler and therefore happier.

“Now my life is hell,” he said.

IT TAKES A CERTAIN temperament to convert every experience into suffering, and Jones shows all the signs. He is ruggedly handsome in a squashed-face, elfin kind of way, morbidly funny and given to far-flung and contradictory digressions. He will reassure you that he doesn’t suffer from multiple-personality syndrome. Diabetes, epilepsy, insomnia, yes, yes, yes. Alcoholism, depression, yes, yes. But not multiple personality. His tone says, I may be messed up, but not THAT messed up.

His eyes can seem startled and blank, as if he’d just turned a corner and witnessed something inexplicable. He doesn’t laugh often, but when he does, he gives in to it completely, closing his eyes and throwing back his head, sometimes laughing beyond the situation, as if reveling in a secret joke or like a man who has thrown the cosmic dice and won.

He moves and speaks slowly. Sometimes he slurs his words. That’s partly from his years of boxing and also from overlapping ideas trying to get out of his mouth all at once. The squashed face is also from the boxing. He could look pretty mean if he wanted — with his jutting forehead, block chin, bent-fender nose — but his overall bearing is gentle, almost soft. Even as he recounts twisted tale after twisted tale, one sorry-assed character after another, as he does in his books.

At 5-foot-10, he is 2 inches shorter than he used to be, a result of age and gravity, and, he might add, colossal pressure. That’s what success brings, in case, like Jones, you didn’t know. When your name is routinely uttered in the same breath as Carver, even Chekhov — that’s pressure. Now everything he writes must be great. And there’s all the attention, the offers from magazines and publishing houses and movie studios. And the money. Oh, what hell.

“I’m not happy if I don’t suffer at least five hours a day,” he said. “I have a quota.”

He brings to mind that old rhyme: “Two men look out through the same bars, one sees mud, the other stars.” Jones is the guy checking out the mud.

ON THIS DAY, at the high school, Jones literally was spotting dirt. The carpet between the English department and the library was filthy. Stains everywhere. He shook his head in disapproval. It was never like this when he worked here, uh-uh.

He is a returning hero at North Thurston, a concrete-and-glass complex that sits in the middle of a leafy campus at the edge of town. The school was completely rebuilt in 1984, which, as schools go, still qualifies it as new. It’s new enough that carpet stains still stand out.

Staff and students greet Jones with respect. The English and history teachers whose wastebaskets he used to empty now are his fans. They attend his readings. And he has a continuing connection to the place: His wife Sally works in the school’s library, and his teenage daughter Jennifer is an honor student and cheerleader. Go Rams!

Three of his old janitor pals are still on the payroll. He ran into a couple of them on the tour. “Well if it isn’t Satan’s lieutenant,” one of them said, shaking hands. They caught up and talked about the latest in vacuum cleaners.

It isn’t a terrible stretch to draw a parallel between his old job and his new one. The quest was to seek out dirt in the deepest recesses and address it. This was something Jones seemed to come by naturally. His whole apparatus was drawn instinctively to the dark places of life and of the heart, particularly the male heart in its most wretched state. “The whole world,” one of his characters says, “is a neurology ward, I guess.”

His characters are boxers, grunts, drug addicts, drop-outs, janitors. Inevitably, they are doomed, dying or bewildered. At the very least they are aggrieved. Many are diseased. Others are stuck in existential funks, or, as he says, in “a kind of Bermuda Triangle of hard-ass reality.”

You would not read Jones to get cheered up, unless neurosis makes you happy. You might read him to languish in the mud of life, which can be invigorating in its own foul sort of way. You might discover a poignant insight about your own base soul, or your roommate’s. Or you might read him strictly for the prose, which leaps up and grabs you by the face like an angry pit bull.

He is working on his first novel, about a whacked-out advertising copywriter who gives up Madison Avenue to do humanitarian work in Africa. Leprosy comes into play, as does a journey into one heart of darkness or another. The story, like his others, is partly autobiographical.

Some 20 years ago, he was fired from an advertising job when, after being asked to write an ad for Jolly Green Giant garden peas, Jones turned in copy that quoted the Green Giant as saying, “These are the best (expletive expletive) peas I ever ate. These are great (expletive) peas.”

Jones was told in no uncertain terms the Jolly Green Giant did not talk that way. He eventually threw a typewriter out a window, and somehow soon after ended up on the Dark Continent.

NOW HE WONDERED out loud how his novel would do. He wanted to consult the I-Ching, which is why at the moment he was headed to the school library. As a custodian, he was in charge of 13 classrooms and the library. Inevitably he spent most of his time in the latter, and not necessarily dusting shelves.

When he wasn’t napping in the sound room or reading up on exotic diseases, he was consulting the I-Ching, which is an Asian form of divination in which you ask a question, shake some coins, and then consult the book of I-Ching for an answer. Jones would ask questions like, “Will my stories ever be published?” So often the book was right.

More than ever, he became a believer in fate. Things happened for a reason, and not always for the good, but often. There was a reason life allowed him to escape his dysfunctional family and hometown of Aurora, Ill., a reason he was discharged from the Marines in the mid 1960s after suffering a savage beating in the ring at the hands of a boxing champion. All but one of his recon unit was killed in Vietnam, as he almost certainly would have been had he not been discharged.

There was a reason he couldn’t hold jobs and drifted from place to place, why he eventually married Sally and settled down in her hometown of Olympia in the mid 1970s and why he worked as a janitor even though he had an English degree from the University of Washington.

The janitor job, it turned out, gave him the freedom to read, a book a day at one point. It also gave him the time to do whatever it is that writers must do in their own heads to be able to write what they were meant to write.

“The Pugilist at Rest” was plucked from the massive slush pile at The New Yorker. Chance. The right editor read it at the right moment. And Thom Jones would never have to push a broom again. That is, unless he wanted to.

Inside the library, Jones knew exactly where the I-Ching sat, on a top shelf in the back. He took it down and reached in his pocket for some coins. He shook them and threw them on a desk like a gambler shooting craps. He opened the book to the right page and started to read. He paced. And then he began to laugh, his mouth open, his head thrown back. He laughed and laughed.