Short Stories * Denis Johnson * Personal Apocalypse * 1992
People are fucked up. There, that’s pretty much the end of it. Enjoy the stories, everyone.
Okay, that might be a bit of a glib dismissal, although it’s the obvious take away from this book. Jesus’ Son, and if you don’t get the reference Johnson puts it right up front so you know what you’re in for, takes its name from The Velvet Underground song “Heroin.” So, guess what the book’s about? What makes it stand out from other addiction fiction is that the actual drugs don’t make much of an appearance. While there is some obvious shared DNA with a book like Naked Lunch, Johnson isn’t dealing with graphic representations of junkie debauchery. There are moments of violence, there are moments of empty sexuality, but they feel detached and matter-of-course. It’s a different aspect of the portrayal of addiction. Johnson doesn’t feel the need to hit us over the head with gross-outs and appalling scenes. Most of what happens within Jesus’ Son is not extreme. That said, it’s still unsettling and strange. Oh, and fascinating.
The stories told in Jesus’ Son are all interconnected, and I’m pretty sure the narrator is the same in all of them. It’s a string of first-person recollections told by a young addict and the people he interacts with over an indeterminate period of time. It is aggressively non-linear. At one point the narrator tells a story about two men, and then immediately forgets to talk about the second man. Toward the end of the collection he’s like “oh yeah, my bad” and finishes the story. It’s that kind of book. It mostly works, though, and the first story of the bunch will pretty much determine if this is for you. It’s called “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” and brace yourself, it’s about a car crash while hitchhiking. The story drops you right into this poor bastard’s life while he’s hitchhiking in the dark and rain. He’s been hitching for a while, and most of the people who pick him up are as strange and on-the-fringe as the narrator himself. They all give him drugs. Eventually a family in a station wagon pick him up out of some kind of Christian charity or something, but then there’s a horrific wreck. The story is a clear image, but it’s also highly disoriented and surrealistic.
That goes for the entire collection. Johnson’s style is clean and quick, but he packs a lot into these stories, which are more a series of semi-hallucinatory images than any kind of coherent narrative. You can try to string everything together logically, I’m sure there’s a timeline you can trace out if you’re so inclined. However, that’s rather beside the point. The narrator is adrift in a drug haze, and it takes him to unsavory yet compelling places. He’s not a nice dude, but he’s not explicitly evil. The best way to experience Jesus’ Son is to just go with it. It may or may not make sense, but it will likely leave an impact. Johnson is an effective writer, and even if the subject matter is dark and unsettling there is still a compulsion to experience the odd life of its narrator. It’s not voyeuristic or exploitative either. It just is. What happens, even if it’s strange or creepy or fucked up, happens.
I suppose a valid question to ask of a book like Jesus’ Son would be: well why would I want to read about a bunch of fucking junkies? I guess I’m not sure you would, but you probably should. One of the major reasons to engage with stories is to gain new perspectives as an attempt at understanding people who are in vastly different places than you. This slight volume is a good way to do that without having to subject yourself to the grim insanity of Naked Lunch, or the unrelenting hopelessness of something like The Corner. Both of those are good, and The Corner in particular is absolutely worth your time, but something like Jesus’ Son is an easy way into this dark, upsetting slice of forgotten America. While the stories are about damaged people doing unusual and unpredictable things. As such, despite the moments of casual violence, this book has a sense of humor. It feels lighter than your typical ‘seedy underbelly of America’ fare. There’s a lot of weird non-sequiturs which can elicit the occasional uneasy chuckle, but mostly the narrator rolls with whatever is happening.
There’s a fine line to be walked with this kind of fiction, of course, because it’s easy for people with no connection to this kind of life to consume something like this and dismiss it. It’s incredibly easy in this country to simply ignore those who don’t fit the middle class profile. This world, the world of junkies and transients and hobos and drifters and burnouts, is always right there. It has a presence in every town in the country, existing right alongside everyone else, hidden in plain sight. And somehow, someway, there’s still the lure of romanticism embedded in what appears to be abject poverty and addiction. These are people who live outside the system, in a world with its own set of rules and social standards, and there is an opportunity for outsiders to look in and simultaneously feel a sense of exasperated superiority and a dark yearning for that kind of freedom.
Of course, the author’s style and intent while writing about these kinds of people has a lot to do with how the reader interprets this parallel American reality. Johnson embeds his stories with a sense of twisted adventure and the freedom of the hitchhiking hobo. The narrator is young and free from the shackles of school and work and social expectations. He goes where he pleases, even if most of the time he’s in dive bars or violent situations or being a creep. There’s an allure to that kind of lifestyle for people ensconced in the typical middle-class-American experience. That experience is a myth in itself, of course, but the treadmill of school-work-family-mortgage is a real weight that can fire up the imagination of escape. Obviously Johnson laces these stories with grim reality. Life expectancy is much shorter for these people, violence is ever present, it’s probably double awful for women, oh, and you’ll be addicted to a drug which makes you feel like death more often than not. That’s why something like The Corner resonates more than this collection or weird fiction. Scratch the surface of semi-romantic strangeness and what Jesus’ Son is actually about is the dark duality of the American experience.