Jones was raised in Aurora, Illinois, and attended the University of Hawaii, where he played catcher on the baseball team. He later attended the University of Washington, from which he graduated in 1970, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, from which he received an M.F.A. in 1973.
Jones trained in Force Reconnaissance in the Marine Corps but was discharged before his unit was sent to Vietnam. This and other personal experiences, including the suicide of his boxer father in a mental institution, have become important sources of material for his fiction. After graduation from college, he worked as a copywriter for a Chicago advertising agency and later as a janitor, all the while reading and writing for hours each day. He was "discovered" well into his forties by the fiction editors of The New Yorker, who published a series of his stories in the early 1990s, including "The Pugilist at Rest", which won an O. Henry Award.
Jones currently resides in Olympia, Washington. He has temporal lobe epilepsy and suffers from diabetes.
Early Published Works
His first book, published in 1993, was the short-story collection The Pugilist at Rest. The stories deal with common themes of mortality and pain, with characters that often find a kind of solace in the rather pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer. Boxing, absent or mentally ill fathers, physical trauma and the Vietnam War are also recurring motifs. The collection was a National Book Award finalist. Jones' other two collections of short stories include Cold Snap (1995) and Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine (1999).
Published Work Since 1999
His story "Night Train," which originally appeared in the magazine Tin House, was included in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004. A humorous essay, "Easter Island Noodles Almondine," about time Jones spent as a youth working for the General Mills plant in Aurora, Illinois, appeared in an issue of Granta focused on Chicago, published in 2009. And "Bomb Shelter Noel," a story about a diabetic girl, was published in the January 2011 issue of Playboy.
Script Writing & Film
Reports have appeared stating Jones has written scripts for feature films, including a Vietnam screenplay for Cheyenne Enterprises, and an adaptation of Larry Brown's novel, The Rabbit Factory, for Ithaka Films.
John Updike in a Salon.com interview praised Jones as one of two writers of a younger generation he admired, and Updike included Jones' story, "I Want To Live!", in the anthology The Best American Short Stories of the Century.