BOOK REIVEW / Life on the rim: love and alcohol and getting hurt: 'The Pugilist at Rest' - Thom Jones: Faber, 14.99

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THOM JONES's characters are overreactors, drifters, flakes. Ex-Marines, usually pill-poppers, they haunt the afternoon racetracks and prizefights and spend evenings at AA meetings or dismal reunions of Vietnam vets. From the point of the modern American short story, however, they belong to a glamorous underworld of post- Carveresque frustration and rage.

Gung-ho flashbacks to the war in Vietnam give the writing urgency, but Jones's real subject is what happens to people when they return from the combat zone. The narrator of the title story, for example, is a demobbed boxer, scarred both mentally and physically, hyperloquacious, a wounded person with a powerful urge to wound others: the classic Jones hero approaches the world with a serious desire to answer the big, eye-glazing questions - the nature of happiness, the meaning of life, and so on.

Jones served as a Marine in Vietnam and later, as a boxer, he contested more than 150 fights. But this first collection of stories transcends mere autobiography. The prose has the spare quality of a cautionary tale or a parable. You get the feeling that he writes about boxing not because of any sentimental attachment to low- life or brutality: in fact, he regards boxing as heroic and especially admires the way boxers cultivate pain. In these stories, getting hurt becomes an act of self-determination.

His other obsessions, though, seem rather dated - an odd effect in the work of a writer so riveted on the contemporary. It's not only the slums, the electric Kool-aid nursing homes, and the psychiatric wards that seem to belong to the pathology of another era. It's also the idea, emphasised repeatedly in the stories, that our souls are being sucked from us by the image-

makers. One story, about retarded adolescence, 'As of July 6, I am Responsible for No Debts Other than My Own', seems to have wandered in from Jack Kerouac without wiping its boots. In 'Silhouettes', he doesn't need to insist quite so sternly that American consumer culture is only a whited sepulchre or a flimsy distraction from the void. Although his stories often fizzle out inconclusively, the writing, at its best, presents the odd mixture of impassivity and disappointment with such ease that it leaves the reader feeling uncomfortably exposed to the heat of Jones's obsessions.