By Hillell Italie
NEW YORK — Thom Jones, an acclaimed short story writer who drew upon family tragedy and his own painful struggles for “The Pugilist At Rest” and other collections, has died.
Jones died Friday in Olympia, Washington, his longtime home, according to his literary representatives, the Wylie Agency. He was 71 and died of complications from diabetes.
“The Pugilist at Rest,” published in 1993, was his debut book and a finalist for the National Book Award. Its stories of violence, trauma and spiritual striving led to comparisons to Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and fellow Pacific Northwest resident Raymond Carver among others.
“Jones’ steady strength is in the unprettified dialogue, in the fine gutbucket descriptions where irony tangles with Hemingwayan macho,” the Los Angeles Times noted in its review.
He was in his late 40s when “The Pugilist at Rest” came out and such stories as the title piece and “The Black Lights” reflected a deeply troubled life. Raised in Aurora, Illinois in a family of fighters, and himself an amateur boxer, Jones was scarred by the suicide of his father and he suffered for years from physical and emotional problems, including diabetes, depression and alcoholism. Among his influences was the bleak philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer.
His boxing days had ended after he was punched so hard in the head, during a bout held while he was in the Marines, that he was institutionalized. He soon learned he had epilepsy. “It was so horrible that to this day it terrifies me; Satan had me,” he told The Associated Press in 1993. “When I saw the black lights, it was like God is a zero, like he said, ‘I am nothing.’ I’m a weak person. I need the face of God; I think a lot of people do.”
Jones had attended the prestigious writers’ workshop at the University of Iowa and his stories appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire and elsewhere. But he only completed two other books after “Pugilist,” the collections “Cold Snap” and “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine,” which came out in the late 1990s.
He did continue to write. The story “Bomb Shelter Noel” ran in Playboy in 2011. Two years earlier, Granta published his dark and humorous essay about working in a General Mills factory in the 1960s.
“It was not a punishment or a disciplinary assignment, but packing monstrous boxes of cornflakes required unnatural strength and stamina,” he wrote. “They hit you harder than the defensive line of the Chicago Bears. Corn Flakes could break the human spirit.”
Jones is survived by his wife, Sally, and daughter, Jennifer.