With its historical and philosophical digressions, surrealistic flights of language and cartoon-like humor, the book echoed classics of American literature while establishing a voice heralded as vital and new. His recollected narratives of men at war revert to the meditations and daily horrors of debilitated veterans.
As with other war literature, Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That" comes to mind, the war experiences pulse with life, the thrill of survival and valor, while the return to peacetime lacks purpose and meaning.
Jones published two more collections, "Cold Snap" and "Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine" before the decade's end, and then all but fell silent. He published a few more pieces, and reportedly worked on screenplays and a novel.
An epileptic as the result of a head injury suffered in a Marine boxing match and a diabetic, Jones died this week at age 71, according to Sam Roberts' well-done obituary in The New York Times.
Jones was nearly 50 and working as a high school janitor when the New Yorker published his signature story, "The Pugilist at Rest," which details a debilitated Vietnam veteran's efforts to cope with civilian life through drugs and the study of history, literature and philosophy, particularly Schopenhauer. A main set piece is a meditation on ancient boxers centered upon the Roman sculpture "A Pugilist at Rest."
Before joining the Marines, Jones received degrees from the University of Washington and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. His father was sent to a mental institution, where he hung himself. It was where "One Flew Over the Cuckooo's Nest" was a filmed, according to the Times.
Unlike with the writing of Tim O'Brien and other chroniclers of Vietnam, Jones' battle scenes were not based on personal experience. Jones suffered his brain injury before his Marine unit was sent to Vietnam. However, the depictions of battle in "The Pugilist at Rest" display an immediacy and impressionistic veracity reminiscent of Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage."
While compared with Raymond Carver, Jones moved away from the minimalism first established by Ernest Hemingway. While etched with a postmodern black humor, Jones' work displays traces of Victorian expressiveness. His stylistic formality recalls Kipling or Gissing.
Jones' bleak portrayals of Vietnam era survivors' physic pain resonate with the sufferings of a new generation of American veterans sent to fight 21st century wars. While treating common themes, Jones displayed an uncommon compassion. His late 20th century vernacular beats with a sense of literary tradition, postmodern jazz with vestiges of archaic rhythms.