BOOK REVIEW / A pansy Marine devours Spinoza: Claire Messud on the powerful mixture of thought and action in Thom Jones's short stories: The pugiList at rest: Thom Jones - Faber pounds 14.99

AS THE anti-hero of Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground sneered: 'Men of action, doers, quite genuinely give up when faced with a wall. To them a wall is not a challenge . . . nor is it an excuse for turning aside . . . A wall is for them something calming, morally decisive and final, perhaps even something mystical. . . .' But for the highly contemporary Thom Jones, such renunciation can be as much a beginning as an ending, and this is what the stories in his debut collection, The Pugilist At Rest, are about. They explore what happens in the mind of the man of action when faced with a wall, when reflection rather than action is the only possible response.

This is still new territory in literary terms, in spite of Hemingway and scores of tough or would-be tough writers since. Most of these have been reflective men playing, intermittently, in the arena of action: introspective misfits and poets building biceps and collecting gun-racks for effect. Even the finest examples of that most macho of genres, Vietnam War literature, works such as Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried or Michael Herr's Dispatches, have a reflective texture about them. They are men of words, mastering the world. Jones is something quite different. He seems to have found language only at the extremity of his experience, following a long haul in 'Nam and more than 150 prize fights, one of which did some peculiar damage to his brain. With language, he found philosophy - specifically that of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard - and a way of approaching that 'something mystical' to which Dostoyevsky's anti-hero makes reference. His characters, whether through war, epilepsy, displacement, terminal illness or alcoholism, see the veil lifted, however briefly, on their lives; and however briefly, their lives are changed.

With the exception of the subject of 'I Want To Live]', an older woman dying of cancer, these people are an almost uniformly brutal, bruised and questionably sympathetic bunch: freaked out ex-Marines; injured or decrepit fighters; a jumped up, Jaguar- driving asshole who sleeps with his brother's wife; a Ferrari-driving ex- con diver. . . . All are summed up, perhaps, in the figure of the title story, 'The Pugilist At Rest'.

This title comes from a statue the narrator admires, of a seated, ageing fighter: 'There is a slight look of befuddlement on his face, but there is no trace of fear . . . there is also the suggestion of weariness and philosophical resignation.' It is an image of a fearlessness for which there are many names: despair, freedom or - to Dostoyevsky's cynic - blind stupidity. As that story's narrator wonders, with the blunt power of the inarticulate taking voice for the first time: 'Why had I killed my fellow men in war, without any feeling, remorse or regret? And when the war was over, why did I continue to drink and swagger around and get in fistfights? Why did I like to dish out pain and why did I take positive delight in the suffering of others? Was I insane?'

This short extract amply illustrates that this is not a collection to read for the magnificence of its prose (elsewhere a character is seen to 'blush like a beet' and the sun is 'baking hot'). Nor are these stories memorable for the sophistication of their form. Moreover, throughout the collection, Jones has a tendency to insert unadulterated clumps of text from his favourite philosophers in a primitive and unwieldy fashion. His 20th-century anti-heroes, trapped in their limited registers, too often find answers or expression only in the phrases of these ultimate 'thinking men'.

Jones is clearly enamoured of the notion of the journeyman philsopher: the pansy Marine in the neuropsych ward devouring Spinoza; the dying grandmother finding redemption in Schopenhauer; the washed-up boxing trainer who 'reads Nietzsche in the German' because 'somebody had to come out and tell it like it is', and who advises his protege, in preparation for a big fight, to 'soak your face in brine twice a day and read the man (Nietzsche). It's all in there.'

But for all its infelicities or occasional absurdities, Jones's collection has an unusual power - the power of authenticity, the experience of bitter lives pressed awkwardly but truly into words, rather than that (ultimately more common) of worlds conjured up out of language and sophistry. Jones's magic doesn't always work, by any means; but when it does, the veil is lifted for the man of action in extremis. And the experience becomes, for us, too, 'something mystical'.