Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson
It’s strange that a book can be simultaneously beautiful yet profoundly untrue. So much for Keats.
Jesus’ Son is a series of eleven loosely connected short stories all featuring (probably) the same unnamed narrator. He’s a junkie, or a recovering junkie, or a relapsing junkie, depending on the story. He lives as best he can, drifting through casual jobs and even more casual friendships. He’d be a loser, except he’s not particularly trying to win anything.
The prose is, quite simply, beautiful. It’s elegant, unexpected, at times surprisingly funny. It’s graceful, which isn’t a word I use often when describing a book. Jesus’ Son is superbly well written. In fact, and I’ll return to this, that’s precisely my problem with it. It’s so well written I think it loses the truth of what it describes. It’s too beautiful.
The first story, Car Crash While Hitchhiking, sets the mood. The narrator is describing an accident he was in, the events leading up to it, the people he hitchhiked with before getting in the car that crashed and the varied booze and drugs and stories they shared with him. It’s disordered, but then if you were drunk and high and involved in a fatal collision so would you be.
The tone is matter of fact. The narrator believes he knew it was going to happen anyway, a post-accident assertion of foreknowledge which you could read literally if you wanted but which seems much more a symptom of the narrator’s fatalism. To him it was as unavoidable as gravity. That’s what his life is – things happening, one after another, without much by way of causal links.
He ends up in hospital, still hallucinating. It’s not the first time reality’s hold has been a little shaky. It certainly won’t be the last:
Some years later, one time when I was admitted to the Detox at Seattle General Hospital, I took the same tack.
“Are you hearing unusual sounds or voices?” the doctor asked.
“Help us, oh God, it hurts,” the boxes of cotton screamed.
“Not exactly,” I said.
That quote comes shortly after a passage where the narrator wanders dazedly through the crash scene holding a baby that like him was left seemingly miraculously unhurt while others were so injured it’s hard to tell who’s dead and who’s alive. None of it surprises him, nothing is given greater weight than anything else.
The individual stories blur together, making it hard now to pick out what happened in one and what in another. That reflects the narrator’s own experience. In one titled Two Men he tells an anecdote of how he and some friends find a guy sleeping in their car and spend the evening trying to get rid of him, driving him around in the hope they can drop him off somewhere.
It’s a slightly random shaggy-dog story (they’re all slightly random shaggy-dog stories), but what’s noticeable is that it only features one man, the guy sleeping in the car. The narrator completely forgets whoever the second man was, and it’s not until I got to the end of the story I realised I had as well. Then again, who cares about a second man when you have dialogue like this?
“Are you still at all worried about Alsatia?”
“I was kissing her.”
“There’s no law against that,” Richard said.
“It’s not her lawyer I’m worried about.”
What makes Jesus’ Son brilliant though isn’t its occasional comic dialogue, great as that is. It’s that a little over 70 pages later a story titled The Other Man opens:
But I never finished telling you about the two men. I never even started describing the second one, whom I met more or less in the middle of Puget Sound, travelling from Bremerton, Washington, to Seattle.
The narrator may not be in control of his life but Johnson is absolutely on top of his material. This is writing as fine carpentry: perfectly joined, no glue required.
In another story, the narrator is working in a hospital emergency room (he spends a lot of time around hospitals, perhaps because that’s where the drugs tend to be). In what by this point seems a classically Johnsonian incident (and it’s a testament to this book that by page 73 it has classic incidents) a man is admitted to hospital with a knife buried deep into his face penetrating the brain:
[The doctor] peeked into the trauma room and saw the situation: the clerk—that is, me—standing next to the orderly, Georgie, both of us on drugs, looking down at a patient with a knife sticking up out of his face. “What seems to be the trouble?” he said.
Everybody had a different idea about exactly how to approach the problem of removing the knife from Terrence Weber’s brain. But when Georgie came in from prepping the patient—from shaving the patient’s eyebrow and disinfecting the area around the wound, and so on—he seemed to be holding the hunting knife in his left hand. The talk just dropped off a cliff. “Where,” the doctor asked finally, “did you get that?”
It’s funny stuff, and with most authors it would be the end of the story, but the narrator has no sense of narrative and meanders on for another 12 pages dealing in the same detail with the time he and Georgie went for a drive and accidentally ran over a rabbit. It shouldn’t work, at the level of the individual story it doesn’t always work, but here the whole is much greater than the parts.
Almost every quote I’ve picked above is comic, which is a little misleading as this isn’t a comic novel. In a later story the narrator takes work as an orderly in a facility for people with profound disabilities. He takes a certain comfort from being there for people even worse off than himself, and sees in them an unvarnished reality that everyone else is hiding from. He sees society tucking the disfigured out of sight, hiding human reminders of frailty and mortality. People like him and his friends, they’re invisible too. They’re lost at the margins, inconvenient and irrelevant, living parallel lives with the wider world.
All of which takes me back to the beginning of this piece, and why I think this book though beautiful is untrue. I’ve mentioned before here that my mother and stepfather were part of the counterculture, and that for them as for many others for a while it went quite badly wrong. I spent much of my teenage years surrounded by adults who were junkies, drunks, damaged people.
I recognise the absurdity of the scenes here and I recognise the characters. I don’t though recognise the beauty. Galley Beggar Press have published some shorts by Tony O’Neill which also tell tales of people living on the margins. O’Neill’s world is one I recognise. It’s squalid and ugly and it’s true.
The trouble with wrapping this world in this prose is that it makes it a thing of grace, but it’s not. The reality of a junkie narrator is some guy off his head in a fetid room talking bollocks that makes sense only to him. There’s nothing elegant about it, and nothing particularly comic. At the extremes it’s desperately, horribly sad. O’Neill captures that. Johnson elides it.
Still, he elides it well and with language so neatly turned that I’ve every intention of reading more by him. Here’s one final quote, showing quite how well Johnson can control tone even within a single sentence.
I was after a seventeen-year-old belly dancer who was always in the company of a boy who claimed to be her brother, but he wasn’t her brother, he was just somebody who was in love with her, and she let him hang around because life can be that way.
Can’t it just? That sentence? That sentence is true.
John Self of Asylum first put this on my radar. His review is here. Trevor of themookseandthegripes also reviewed it here. Finally, here‘s a review by a blog new to me that I also thought interesting. If you know of more, as ever please tell me in the comments.