BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
Author: Thom Jones
1995, Little, Brown, & Company
I loved Thom Jones’s debut collection, The Pugilist at Rest, so I was thrilled to find parallels to his previous work everywhere when I started Cold Snap. His protagonists are still hyped up on life and drugs, desperate, terminally ill, caught in extreme situations or else throwing themselves into disaster. His prose still manages the precision of surgery with the pacing of a car chase. Ad Magic, the amnesiac hero of one of my favorite stories from the previous collection, even makes an appearance.
So if you liked Pugilist at Rest, then there’s a lot to like in Cold Snap. Unfortunately, there’s not much else. For me, these stories were a confirmation of Jones’s talent and a strange disappointment. No single story disappointed me completely, but neither did any deliver with the same force as the best stories in Pugilist, and most of the stories here offered only echoes of Jones’s earlier work.
Maybe it’s ungrateful to complain about more of the same when the original was so good. And certainly when I open a new book by an author whose older work I’ve read, I’m looking for something I found there before. It would likely have been a much bigger disappointment to find that these stories sounded nothing like Thom Jones, to find that they had nothing to do with drugs and epilepsy and boxing. Maybe what I’m looking for, then, is a familiar voice, a familiar style, even familiar content, but a new angle.
The strongest stories in Cold Snap managed to provide some of that. The title story, “Way Down Deep in the Jungle,” and “Ooh Baby Baby” all introduce a new character to Jones’s menagerie of fuck-ups: doctors returned from or working in third world countries, people who have gone to extremes to help others, burnt out or burning out. These docs fit the mold of Jones’s characters almost effortlessly while adding an element of competence, even success, to the mix of desperation and mania. In the end though, these docs are themselves too similar to each other for any one of these stories to stand out. They all face the same struggles with being ineffectual; they all share a death wish.
On the other end of the spectrum, the weakest story in this collection was almost too un-Joneslike. “Rocketfire Red” is an experiment in Australian dialect, and while the characters and events are exciting and tragic, the voice is overwrought. It wanders for several pages leading up to the heart of the story, a tale of an ill-fated drag racing team, and lingers on for several pages after the big race. The voice winds down as if it can’t stop until it has used up all the idioms at its disposal: “Good on yer, then. I’ve ‘ad me say. Waltzin’ Matilda and all that lot. Whacko-the-diddle-oh! Hey!”
Between the strongest and the weakest, Cold Snap offers only the Jones we already know, solid stories about boxers and marines and invalids. Call it classic Jones or stock Jones; either way it’s exactly what you might expect if you’ve read his first book. If you haven’t, then I’d be curious to hear your reaction to these stories. Cold Snap is a good enough encore. I enjoyed it even though I expected something better, but I can’t help wondering if I would’ve enjoyed it more were I not constantly comparing it to The Pugilist at Rest.
Similar reads: The Pugilist at Rest (Thom Jones), Jesus’ Son (Denis Johnson), Bear and his Daughter (Robert Stone)