The first time I read Thom Jones’ short story “The Pugilist at Rest” was in 1996. I was twenty-five and in a workshop taught by a man named Tom Filer. He was one of those writers with a biography that sounds impossible: served in the South Pacific during World War II, was first mate on an albacore boat, dealt blackjack at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, wrote movies for Roger Corman, starred in a movie with Jack Nicholson, wrote a poorly reviewed novel, wrote countless award-winning short stories, free-dived for lobsters, had a series of dogs with exotic names, and, eventually, taught creative writing in Peter Graves’ guest-house in Santa Monica Canyon.
The classes were filled with an unlikely assortment of characters – a doctor from the Palisades; a special education teacher; a woman who wrote the same story about a talking rat for three years, never quite getting it right; actors; lawyers; young writing students poached from the Writers’ Program at UCLA; people he met walking his dog – and we all gathered in a tiny little room on uncomfortable chairs, drank wine, and had our life’s work torn apart and thrown back at us. It’s as close to a crucible as writers ever get, this public discussion of their work, and I loved it. I spent five years at Tom’s knee and I loved him, tried with every story to please him, and then eventually had to leave him behind, as young writers often do with their mentors. This was all so long ago and thinking about it makes me a little sad. Because the fact was, Tom gave me the best things to read, always knew precisely what story I had to read, knew exactly what a story would give back to me, maybe not immediately, maybe not even in the near future, but understood that at some point, a story, a line, an image, would resonate and I would learn something about what it meant to be a writer.
“I got over that first scare and saw that I was something quite other than that which I had known myself to be.” Those words come along on page 134 of the Best American Short Stories of 1992, in the middle of Thom Jones’ now iconic story (but which at the time was just the first glimpse we’d get of the writer, and, as it happened, one of the few; his output sadly light, only three total books and none in the last 17 years).
Tom plucked the book from his shelf and gave it to me one night after workshop and it’s here on my lap now. That line has a tiny arrow next to it. I’m not one of those people who writes in books, so I can only assume Tom put it there, to show me that this notion I was attempting to explore – even then, even now – that we are not who we seem to be, that we are not even who we want to be, that trauma changes our shape and our substance, and that maybe we don’t even have a choice in the matter…well, it wasn’t a made-up thing, because Thom Jones knew it, and if I wasn’t writing with the authenticity of Thom Jones, what was the use?
He was right, of course. What was the use? I had to figure that out. It took me years. So when Thom Jones died this week, it made me think of the last time I saw Tom Filer alive, the two always associated in my mind because of this tiny arrow, this story, these lessons. It was 2007. Maybe it was 2008. It might have been 2006. The fact is, I can’t remember. Tom has been dead now for three years and this meeting was at least five years before he died. We sat out on his patio – Peter Graves stepped out and said hello, I remember that – and Tom gave me half of a sandwich, some crackers, and some white wine – he was a man who believed deeply in crackers and wine – and we talked first about books and stories and about my own teaching, and his disappointment that I was working for the University of California, which he harbored some grudge against – he was a man who harbored grudges – and then he asked me, quite seriously, if there were any books of his that I wanted when he died, because if so, he’d leave a note in them, marking them for me. I said something like, No, no, that’s not necessary, come on, you’ll live forever, because what else does one say in those moments?
Now I wish I’d said that I wanted all of them, that I needed to have all of them, that I had to know which other stories might one day help me understand all of those things that still seem so mysterious about this life and this art, about how we put emotion onto a page, about how to glean what is trauma and what is truth and what, if anything, is the difference.
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