During the 1990s, Thom Jones rose from obscurity to become one of the brightest literary talents in the country. He was a high school janitor and onetime boxer who, in his late 40s, submitted a short story to the New Yorker that, against all odds, the magazine published.

“The Pugilist at Rest” won the prestigious O. Henry Award and became the title of Jones’ first collection, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Other stories soon appeared in the Atlantic, Esquire, Harper’s and Playboy.

“Writers as good as Thom Jones appear but rarely,” novelist Thomas McGuane wrote in the New York Times Book Review in 1993.

His tales reflected the troubled lives of damaged men who were boxers, Marines, heavy drinkers or blue-collar workers – all of which Jones had been, at one time or another. His characters always wanted more from life than it offered.

Three collections of short stories came out between 1993 and 1999. Then Jones largely fell silent and did not publish another book for the rest of his life.

He died Oct. 14 at the age of 71.

The cause was complications from diabetes, said his wife, Sally Jones.

Even during the years when he was working in factories, pushing a broom, getting fired from jobs, battling illness and going through rehab, Jones always thought of himself as a writer.

“I’m a great believer in fate, and I believe that all those things in my life had to happen – being a drunk, a boxer, the epilepsy, the diabetes,” he told the Seattle Times. “You have to suffer a lot before you can be a writer of fiction.”

Jones almost found acclaim in his early 20s, when one of his stories was accepted by the Atlantic. But he refused to make the changes requested by the editor, and it never appeared.

He studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the early 1970s and watched as several of his classmates, including Tracy Kidder, became celebrated authors.

A decade later, Jones was working as a janitor at a high school in Lacey, Wash. One morning at home, he saw Kidder interviewed on television.

He quit drinking and began to write. “The Pugilist at Rest,” his first and most famous story was inspired by Jones’ stint in the Marines.

An amateur boxer who had more than 150 fights in his teens, Jones went into the ring at Camp Pendleton, California, to face a more experienced Marine champion. He was so badly beaten that he ended up in a psychiatric facility with a medical discharge.

“The guys in my unit all got killed in Vietnam, except for one,” Jones told the New York Times in 1993. “I wanted to go. I was such a fool. My best friend went and he got killed. ”

“The Pugilist at Rest,” which Jones wrote in about 12 hours, derived from those experiences. Even though he did not go to Vietnam, he depicted the field of battle with brutal intensity.

“There was a reservoir of malice … in my soul, and it poured forth freely in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam,” he wrote.

“One of the great things about the New Yorker,” he said in 1993, “is that they read their mail. I put something out there – and I’m nobody – and I made it.”


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