Thursday, April 06, 2017

"A White Horse" (1992)

Story by Thom Jones not available online.

Thom Jones's premise for this story is so strange that it takes some getting used to. "Ad Magic," the only name we have for the protagonist, finds himself on a guided tour of Mumbai (or Bombay, in the story), with his pockets stuffed full of cash and his body battered. We learn it's not uncommon for him to have fugue states and blackouts from which he often emerges thousands of miles from his home and life, as an advertising copywriter (he says) in North America. It's some kind of condition—he travels compulsively in these states. Something like the character in the movie Memento, he knows he has the condition and is desperately trying to manage it, even as he reacts immediately and unconditionally to his environment. Thus, when he "comes to" shortly after a tour bus accident, realizing he doesn't know his name and only barely knows the name of the hotel where he is staying, he becomes fixated on a dying horse he spots wandering the street, abandoned to die by a traveling circus. He recklessly produces his wads of cash, attempting to get someone to help the horse. The people he approaches don't even seem to understand what a veterinarian is, so he asks for a doctor, implying he needs one because of the accident he was in. The horse brings some pathos to this story—vulnerable animals often do in fiction—but the chaotic actions of Ad Magic make the horse appear even more vulnerable. The doctor comes and treats both Ad Magic and the horse, but it's not clear that this doctor is entirely on the up and up. We're always uncomfortably aware of the ostentatious way Ad Magic handles his cash, how much danger he might be putting himself in. The story might be comic but it's not funny, and it's almost perfectly mystifying. At one point I was reduced to quibbling about the use of the indefinite article "A" in the title. This white horse certainly seems specific to our hero. Certainly it's intended to be taken ironically on one level, for all the baggage as a symbol that horses (not to mention the color white) bear. But ultimately that seemed incidental too, and I had to agree that "The" would have been the wrong call in the title. The language has the post-Carver immediacy and clarity. It's compelling, weird, readable. I want to penetrate its mysteries. I know it's more than an amnesia story.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff


  1. I broke this story down for a writing seminar in college like 20 years ago. And I doubt I came anywhere close to the "real" meaning. I love that collection though and that story in particular will always have a special place for me. Even if I don't know what it means.

  2. If you haven't, look up Wikis Thom Jones biog.

  3. Thanks, all. I can't find that blog (do you have a link?) but while looking I found this interesting piece from shortly after he died: I forgot he lived in Olympia and only died around the time I was working on this story project. Great story!