Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Writing In Ernest

By Randall Holdridge

MARCH 15, 1999: 

Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine, by Thom Jones (Little Brown). Cloth, $23.

DESPITE ALL THE hand wringing, the takeover of publishing houses by media conglomerates is actually increasing the number of new titles in fiction. That media-type marketing comes with it is no surprise, and probably over-hyped dust jacket blurbs are a necessary evil. Sometimes they help. But the comparison to Ernest Hemingway of just any male under age 40 who writes about men outdoors or at war ought to make editors (and the writers who approve such immodest characterization of their work) hang their heads in shame.

Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine, the third book of stories by Thom Jones, is one example. Sure, Jones writes some stories about boxing and battle, but so do Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates, and nobody has claimed that they "update and extend the legacy of Hemingway." To base a comparison to Hemingway on gender and subject is like calling a Twinkie pastry.

Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine is a redundancy for Jones, a remake of his second book of stories, which was a dim simulacrum of his first. Whatever may be said of Hemingway's development over the years, it was (like Norman Mailer's) diverse and expanding--and of course, it was above all original.

Thom Jones writes New Yorker formula stories--he's John Cheever in Everlast trunks. Would a Hemingway character ever quote Nietzsche (or any philosopher), for God's sake, to try to make sense of the world; and if he did, wouldn't he be an object of derision? Where's Jones' Sun Also Rises, his Farewell to Arms, his For Whom the Bell Tolls?

And as to style, when Jones (or any other writer) changes the way the sentence is written in English for good and for all, or conveys so palpably the visceral meanings engendered by experience of the physical world, then let's talk about extending the Hemingway legacy. What Jones can do, as in "Fields of Purple Forever," is write convincing Black American speech, and Hemingway never could do dialects.

Can't we lay off the commercial exploitation and blind macho stereotyping of Ernest Hemingway, which only diminishes maybe our greatest writer? I know Hemingway's work; as a writer, Hemingway is a hero of mine; and Mr. Jones, you're no Hemingway. So far neither is anyone else.


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