Jesus' Son: Stories by Denis Johnson



I've always been drawn to intensely literate depictions of squandered lives in various states of disrepair via the chemical catalysts of substances and/or booze.  Whether it's Leaving Las Vegas — in my mind as bleak and brilliant as Malcolm Lowry's bacchanalian masterpiece, Under the Volcano — or Permanent  Midnight; or, even, going back a ways (a couple centuries or so) to Thomas De Quincey's, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, I'm always moved by the emotional and psychological rawness of the harrowing accounts — and reminded — by these addict's sad stories, of the kind of person I'm glad I'm not (knock on wood) and never hope to be, again.



Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son: Stories (1992), for me, is as close to being high on dope that one can become from merely ingesting words and sentences and paragraphs through one's eyes and, if read aloud, ears.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas doesn't come close to Jesus' Son's acute hallucinatory intensity, and that's no jab at Hunter S. Thompson.  Perhaps Trainspotting would rank up there as highly with me as well, were I able to navigate at least half of its nearly indecipherable, incoherent heavy accent that gives even Ozzy Osbourne a run for its money in interpreting what the hell was just said.  If there's a Junky Canon of Literature, next to Burroughs' and Hubert Selby's finest work, Denis Johnson too deserves a slot.

In A Fan's Notes (another boozer-loser's masterpiece), and the book that upon its publication in 1968 finally made its heretofore author's drunkard's existence mean something more than merely another wasted alcoholic's life, Frederick Exley said, speaking through one of his recently sobered-up characters in a rehab facility, that "alcoholism is hopelessness."

Assuming Exley's pithy, but profound, assessment is true, and it certainly rings true for me in its cut-through-the-crap clarity shed of all that extraneous, overly-analytical psychological hullabaloo of excuses your average drunk might stake his or her "disease" on, then, I ask, what the hell does that make heroin addiction?  Comatose despondency?  Suicide?  I mean, what's more hopeless, besides child starvation, surviving under a tyrant's rule, or being on an airplane that's going down, than heroin?

Jesus' Son nails that hopelessness like no other book on the subject I've read.  I can't say enough how much I appreciated the unreliable, deluded, deranged, doped-up, just plain odd perspective this unnamed narrator brings to some bizarre scenarios he encounters.  Whether he's wading surreally through the slow-mo aftermaths of a head on car crash that killed the driver but left him unscathed in "Car Crash While Hitchhiking;" or, stripping copper wire out of a friends former habitation, hacking all day through dry wall, to earn enough scrap metal dough so that he and his friend can go out drinking that night, in "Work;" or, the black (unintentionally funny) comic reactions of the narrator witnessing an unfortunate man walk into the E.R. with a knife sticking in his eye, where our anti-hero works as a constantly inebriated nurse's attendant, in "Emergency," I can't stop thinking to myself as I read, "this can't be; this is crazy," while remaining mesmerized by this guys weird (but not so weird as to be unbelievable) thought processes.

And I think Denis Johnson's characterization of this no-name junky alcoholic is indeed an accurate portrayal.  It's an evocative and artistic (not to mention deeply poetic; my God, Johnson's poetic prose!) glimpse inside the messed up mind of addiction.  It's terse inside that moody, manipulative mind; it's disjointed as a shoulder separation; it's non-sensical sometimes while remaining cogent (the paradox of it!); it's past credulity yet makes perfect sense; it's beyond blackly comic (try Dr. Strangelove on steroids), like being miniaturized and shot inside the very user's veins along with the spoon-heated smack straight into the bloodstream and brain of one sick and pathetically twisted (and yet so endearing and sympathetic) individual, so that you can see how he sees, think how he thinks, feel how he feels — all of this, the dense under-statedness of it and the lack of fleshing out of the details or making complete narrative connections in the stories — all of it — by Denis Johnson's deft designJohnson showcases the agony and sometimes unintended artfulness of the addicted mind in revelatory ways.  A marvel of a little book. 

This hopeless narrator of Jesus' Son literally perceives reality not in any manner the non-addict can ever hope to recognize, relate to, or understand — and it's that difference in reality-perception captured so well by Denis Johnson that elevates Jesus' Son above the other better known and lionized classics of drug and booze literature.