‘The Black Lights’ by Thom Jones

The Black Lights by Thom Jones, 1992

The magic trick:

Using surrealist elements to make the story very weird, but keeping the essential conflict grounded in reality

Not my favorite stuff here, if we’re being honest. Vietnam, boxing, masculinity. It becomes a sendup of masculinity, but the sendup is almost more masculine than the masculinity it’s trying to send up. Anyway, the use of surrealism here is pretty cool. Things get very weird as our protagonist gets more and more unwell. We’ve got men with tin noses and monster rabbits under the bed. Some of it is surreal. Some of it is simply odd. All of it is dealt with in a very realistic way. The conflict – weird as it may get – essentially remains realistic. And that’s quite a trick on Jones’s part.

The selection:

There I sat in a corner of the dayroom on the kelly-green floor tiles, dressed in a uniform of pajamas and bathrobe, next to a small, tightly coiled catatonic named Joe, who wore a towel on his shoulder. Here in this corner – the most out-of-the-way place in the ward – was one of the few windows. Occasionally a Marine would freak out and bolt for the window, jump up on the sill, shake the security screen, and scream “I want to die!” or “I can’t take it anymore, let me out of this motherfucker!” At these times Joe would actually move a little. By that I mean he would tilt to the left to give the screamer a little space. Except for me and one of the corpsmen, Joe would not let anyone touch him or feed him or change him.

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