Student Pick

The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones


Thom Jones submitted the title story of this collection to The New Yorker’s slush pile when he was working as a janitor, twenty years after he’d graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. At the time, the fiction editor said they were publishing 112 stories a year from the 22,400 submissions, and only one or two would come from unsolicited submissions. When you read the story “The Pugilist at Rest,” you’ll understand why it caught an editor’s attention and how it earned an O Henry Award.

“The Pugilist at Rest” follows a narrator as he graduates from boot camp, deploys to Vietnam three times, and ultimately becomes a boxer and develops epilepsy. The narrator recalls his time in Vietnam, so the reader relives his experiences and sees how his past has broken him physically and spiritually.

Jones’s stories are built around violent acts of love. In “The Pugilist at Rest,” the narrator slams the buttstock of his rifle into a recruit’s head out of loyalty to his friend; Marines will die violently to save their buddies. Jones doesn’t glorify the violence, but rather shows the burden that it has put on his characters.

Stories like “The Pugilist at Rest” and “The Black Lights,” are examples of how short fiction can be perfect. They’re so good that they’ll make you want to work harder because after reading it, you’ll see that the bar got raised a few notches.

— Eddie Dzialo