Review: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson



First: many thanks to the excellent for pointing me in the direction of many fine books, most recently and notably 2666 and Jesus’ Son. If you like anything at all about what I’m trying to do with Demilecteur, please go check out Biblioklept, which was one of the primary inspirations for this blog.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson is a collection of linked short stories, concerning the luminously turbulent life and experiences of an unnamed narrator, a young man whose life has spiraled off into drug and alcohol addiction. Although each story functions as a discrete episode and can be read on its own (with “Two Men” and “The Other Man” being the only slight exceptions), reading Jesus’ Son front to back turns it into something other than a collection stories, but also other than a conventional novel: a micro-series of nested correspondences, a maze in miniature, a fragmented, distracted picaresque.

I read Johnson’s novel Angels some – maybe as many as ten, Jesus Christ – years ago. I liked it. Scenes from it have stuck with me to this day, and come back to me anytime I think about the novel, are returning even as I write this sentence; but I also recall a vague disappointment attendant upon finishing and processing it. On the strength of Jesus’ Son alone I’d bet the disappointment is my fault, not the book’s. Sometimes you don’t have the right weak spots inside you, yet, for a good book to strike at; I’d like to return to Angels at some point.

Anyway: Jesus’ Son. It’s fantastic. If we lump it in with other famous pieces of drug lit like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Naked Lunch (I’ve read the former, but not the latter), and I think that’s one valid avenue of approach, one thing that distinguishes it in that subgenre is its ability to convey, on the structural level, the profound decentralization of a drug-addled, addicted state – not just someone who is high or drunk, but somebody submerged in addiction, whose life revolves around the acquisition and consumption of drugs. In Jesus’ Son, drug addiction is not only a plot point as it is in Fear and Loathing (as I remember it), or an aesthetic conceit as in Naked Lunch (as I envision it), but something that has both corrupted and purified the texture of the book itself. The decentralization doesn’t get in the way – it is the way.

This is a deceptively difficult point to illustrate in a review, because the effect is built up subtle in and across each story. A simple for instance: the narrator gets his chronology mixed up, he jumps backwards and forwards in his stories, altering, amending, noting that maybe he doesn’t have the facts quite straight, that maybe he never will, and that, ultimately, it may not matter. Here’s an example from the story “Emergency,” from just after the narrator has explained how he accidentally sat on and killed a litter of infant bunnies he and his friend Georgie were keeping in a truck; suddenly the exact time in his life that this happens starts to fall apart; he questions whether the snowy day he recalls it happening on was in fact a separate time, and whether the next morning he’s about to relate to us occurred then or elsewhere:

Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed. Maybe it was the time we slept in the truck and I rolled over on the bunnies and flattened them. It doesn’t matter…The bunnies weren’t a problem yet, or they’d already been a problem and were already forgotten, and there was nothing on my mind. (Pages 84-85)

This ingrained, troubling, but also casual disregard for the sequence of events does violence to our perception of the importance of time, and then tells us that neither the violence nor time itself matters. Jesus’ Son isn’t really interested in showing you Your Brain on Drugs. It wants to show you Your Life, Which is So Sad and Shattered That It Doesn’t Really Matter Whether This Pitiful Thing Happened Before or After The Next (Or Previous) Pitiful Thing.

Threading all of these scenes together, each as crisply etched as a face on a coin, is Johnson’s prose, a meticulously disheveled kind of prose that moves without catching a breath between matter of fact, staccato, noir-ish relaying of action to flinging out burning scenes of revelation that blossom in and around the narrator as he moves through these tableaux of despair. Check out this holy hybrid; an example from the first story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking:”

The man hanging out of the wrecked car was still alive as I passed, and I stopped, grown a little more used to the idea now of how really badly broken he was, and made sure there was nothing I could do. He was snoring loudly and rudely. His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn’t be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real. (pages 9 – 10)

Some writers go entire careers without pursuing the balance and compression on display in this paragraph. There’s the simple melodic beauty of “the idea /now/ of /how/ really badly broken he was;” the ‘now’ and ‘really’ both not necessary to convey general meaning, but essential to the music of the sentence; and the way “really badly broken” conveys a freight of pity right into your skull. But then it’s all punctured by the horror of describing a dying man’s death rattle as loud, rude snoring (echoes of the sounds of tortured Christians in Shusaku Endo’s Silence). And then the whole thing rides an arc of redemption as a symbol of “the great pity of a person’s life on this earth.” But then that pity is punctured – or made more real, which is the same thing – by not being what we expect (that we all die), but rather that we all live unable to communicate anything, really, to one another. And that we’ll die that way too.

So life is a tragedy of silence, but art isn’t, it can speak when our own hearts souls fail to do so, and the whole of Jesus’ Son is littered with revelation. The book has a numinous quality to it; it’s strangely beatific in a way that feels neither forced nor, ultimately, permanent. In the final story, “Beverly Home,” the narrator is recovering from addiction and working a part-time job writing a newsletter at a nursing home. And whereas the other stories ended in moments of epiphanic despair, a kind of poetically fraught hope, or burning revelation, “Beverly Home” ends in a moment of strangely pedestrian summation – very nearly a cliché:

All these weirdoes, and me getting a little better every day right in the middle of them. I had never known, never even imagined for heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us. (Page 160)

To be clear: it works. It’s supposed to be dumb, because unfortunately the truly tangible things are, often, these dumb things. There’s something evanescent about the narrator’s other revelations, his exalted visions. Something subjective, hermetic, untranslatable. He can’t tell us, really, what he’s dreaming; but in the last story he tries to tell us what’s real. And if – great pity – it’s not much, that’s not his fault.

On the eye-quivering quality of Jesus’ Son I’ve put Johnson’s big Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke, onto my 2019 reading list. Go read this one and you may end up doing the same.

Image Credit: Jesus’ Son cover design by Charlotte Mao.

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