JF has been after me to read this one for a long time now. So, I finally sat down to read it and I simply devoured Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. This is in part because the stories are quite short but also because they open up the maniac world of a heroin addict/ alcoholic. I’m normally quite skeptical about drug narratives, I’m looking at you Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but Johnson’s collection is something else entirely. I think there are two reasons for this.
The first is that the stories are written in, what was to me, a unique form. The narrative jumps around schizophrenically, so that you might be in the hospital one minute and out in a truck in a sudden snowfall in the next (“Emergency”). Johnson throws narrative logic to the wind and frees his stories to move around at will. Of course, it’s not a willy-nilly movement that makes no sense. Johnson is careful to tie his stories back together either explicitly or implicitly. In “Work,” the narrator begins with shooting heroin with his girlfriend in a hotel room before switching to a bar scene where he is invited along on a shady mission with Wayne. They travel to an abandoned suburb (because of flooding) and proceed to strip a house of its copper wiring, only for the narrator to find out that it was Wayne’s house. The two characters then seeing a beautiful naked woman paragliding behind a boat on the river before the narrator stops at a house off the highway so Wayne can talk to its inhabitant (the same naked woman the narrator soon realizes). The story (only 9 pages long) then ends back at The Vine (a run-down bar) where Wayne and the narrator are served by their favorite waitress who serves generous drinks. As you can see, this story follows a wild plot and refuses to justify its movements. Instead, we are left with a sense of awe at Johnson’s ability to make it work.
The final paragraph of “Work” also points to second reason why I think Jesus’ Son works. Johnson seems to be a poet in disguise with some jaw-dropping passages. Heroin and alcohol seem to open up the narrator to amazing insights and thoughts, and we are privy to these. I’m going to quote the last paragraph of “Work” because it illustrates this quite well:
“The Vine had no jukebox, but a real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. ‘Nurse,’ I sobbed. She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring. ‘You have a lovely pitching arm.’ You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom. I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.” (53-54)
I love the simile of approaching the cocktail glass like a hummingbird. It imbues a kind of golden/magic aura to the run-down bar and its inhabitants (I also have a strange fascination with dive-bars and old alcoholics). However, reality irrupts into this scene with the final lines where the narrator callously predicts her future while still paying homage to her as an alcoholic’s muse/siren.
If you are unsure about Johnson’s work, there is a New Yorker podcast of “Emergency,” read by Tobias Wolff that is a great introduction to the world of Jesus’ Son. I highly recommend it.
I also highly recommend this collection to fans of short fiction. It is one of my favorite reads this year.
Johnson, Denis. Jesus’ Son. London: Granta, 1992. Print.