The title story of Thom Jones' third collection, "Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine," centers on a boxer, but just about every character in these 12 tales has a fight on his hands. Jones' world is as atmospheric as a song by Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits. In fact, his turf is something like an aggregate of those guys' -- a territory of soft-underbelly toughness, rough breaks, mental institutions, disgusting ailments, Haldol, morphine, LSD, Lithium (no Prozac), Vietnam, Vietnam aftershock, janitors and impossible love. It was birthed fully formed in his magnificent first collection, "The Pugilist at Rest," in 1993. A second, "Cold Snap," followed in 1995.
Jones' typical character is in combat -- against the Viet Cong, the ocean, diabolical colleagues, depression, diabetes. (The author himself is famously the veteran of 150 amateur bouts.) His best stories sit at the most bizarre reaches of his universe -- "Mouses," for example, in which a short, humpbacked engineer reacts to getting fired by playing Josef Mengele with the small rodents that infest his apartment, injecting them with testosterone made from minced mouse testicles and marching them on ingeniously electrified treadmills, while he slides into stinking poverty.
The first six stories include a couple of lackadaisical ones about Vietnam; a spine-chilling study of a middle-aged all-but-matricidal mama's boy, "40, Still at Home"; and "Tarantula," a viciously comic morality tale about a hubristic schoolmaster. But it's in the latter half that Jones really delivers. The final story (practically a novella), "You Cheated, You Lied," is a highly sexed love story set in Illinois, Waikiki and a couple of mental institutions. The main characters are William, the epileptic narrator, and irresistible, irrepressible, but "seriously depressed, highly disturbed" Molly Bloom (sic). When Molly tells William, "The whole world is a neurology ward," she could be stating the author's core belief. In his world, mental institutions are as commonplace as diners (the skewed but curiously uplifting Christmas tale "A Midnight Clear" is set entirely in a state hospital), and every character seems to suffer from some disorder or other -- often diabetes, which Jones suffers from himself.
There is a marked similarity in the voices here. Frankie Dell, a high school senior with a night job at the local movie house in "I Love You, Sophie Western," has a crush on Susannah York in Tony Richardson's film of Fielding's "Tom Jones" (cute, Thom); but what he gets is a ghastly tryst with the pedophiliac projectionist. "Wesley yanked his head down hard. 'You can forget that shit, Susannah York has got to be pushin' sixty by now,'" he growls at the kid. Anson, the demented engineer in "Mouses," observes, "Apparently, 'Don't shit where you eat' isn't in the rodent codebook. Hygiene is not a big concern with them." What these characters share isn't so much scatological diction (though Jones' mouth is filthy) as a tongue-in-cheek cynicism. (The exception is the book's sole female narrator, in the tour de force "Daddy's Girl.") Their disgust manifests itself on the physical plane as "a shower of yellow flakes" from the scalp or a two-fisted combination of Tylenol and bourbon or enough Pepto-Bismol to blacken the tongue.
Spending time with Jones' battle-worn eccentrics and disenfranchised misfits leaves you feeling bruised but also elated. "Been down so long," they seem to be saying, "it's hilarious."