Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son



Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson – I remember reading this book about 10 years ago and liking it very much (it is neither about Jesus, nor a son he might have had, but it’s from a Lou Reed lyric, from a song called “Heroin”, which hints at one of the book’s themes). I also remember seeing the movie and not liking it all that much – it was okay. Re-reading the book, I can hardly find any of the magic I sensed at the time. None of the stories are even familiar. Did I read the same book?

The book is about a teenage guy nicknamed FH (for “fuckhead”, we never learn any part of his real name), a character developed by Johnson, who wrote about him in various stories published in various literary journals, wrapping them up here. FH lives, with various other uneducated sods, tragically, in his late teens and early twenties, during the early 1970s in the vast fringes of American society where people are semi-transient, live day-to-day, and don’t have much hope or thought. He hangs out in bars, he uses heroin, he engages in petty crime, he drives a piece-of-shit car, he fears his newborn son and has fallen out of love with his teenage bride; other times he is living with a girlfriend, the wife and son are a thing of the past, if they ever existed at all. There are random, surreal passages, and non-sequitar sentences that are at the same time peculiar and deeply compelling. There are also verbatim conversations of medium length that capture the education, sensitivities and idioms of that generation.

There’s probably nothing autobiographical about this tale, as Johnson seems to be well-bred himself and engaged in all of the right parts of the literary infrastructure of American fiction. The words are placed together poetically, and construct a cynical, self-aware (for the most part) and desperate individuals who sadly has no inkling of the rationale behind his self-destruction. The people he deals with are untrustworthy, as is he, a world of imperfect individuals. It’s a densely fascinating world for the observer, with nothing romantic about it at all – Bukowski without the humor.

Maybe I’m so fascinated by the book because the author’s first name looks like the word “penis”, a “p” being a rotated “d”. I think I might have to re-read the book before I return it to the library – it’s very short, 11 stories over 158 pages, large spacing and big font, it probably has no more than 40,000 words.

[Time passes...]

As it turns out I did re-read it, not only once but twice. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. It’s not because I love the book so much, but I wanted to see if I could remember why I liked it so much initially. With each re-reading this got easier and easier to do. The book contains ten short stories, many of them with highly literal titles. “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” is just that, a stoned FH gets rides with three separate lunatics on a rainy drug-filled evening, and when a young family picks him up they get involved in a collision, a man is killed, there’s a trucker, there’s a hospital (one of many in this collection), and plastic prose like “under Midwestern cloud like great grey brains we left h superhighway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City’s rush hour with the feeling of running aground.” The story, like so many, ends with bizarre, cryptic, non-sequitar sentences.

“How did the room get so white?” I asked.

A beautiful nurse was touching my skin. “These are vitamins,” she said, and drove the needle in.

It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.

Denis Johnson also publishes poetry. Aces. “Two Men” is a strange car-riding story about FH and two men he fell in with, before they fell apart during a botched robbery (… yeah… I know… it’s relentless), they drive around and discover a weirdo in their car who pretends that he can’t talk, they try to figure out what to do with him and attempt to return him to his home, or whatever place he deserves to be, discovering the jocks who had turned heads. At the end, crime drifts back, and FH pulls his pistol, the one that has never gone off, and threatens the family of some guy he’s looking for who sold him bad drugs. I like this story. “Out On Bail” is the tale of Jack Hotel, George Hoddel, his trial, celebrating in the bar with him and the other drunks. “That night I saw in a booth across from Kid WIlliams, a former boxer. He was in his mid fifties. He’d wasted his entire life. Such people were very dear to those of us who’d wasted only a few yeas. With Kid Williams sitting across from you it was nothing to contemplate going on like this for another month or two.” It’s that kind of book. FH remembers some stories about him, some story about how he left town and came back, fought with his girlfriend, the get some money and they get some heroin. FH takes it and lives, George Hotel takes it and doesn’t. It’s just one of those things (some people die in Jesus’ Son, some people live, it’s very random). Like in “Dundun” FH goes out to a farm in the country where he knows some people (including George Hotel – this book uses Pulp Fiction timelines), one of whom has a bullet in him, shot by another person in the house (a psychopath we later learn). It’s all very casual, so is how they deal with his body when he dies in the car on the way to the hospital (the shooter had offered a beer to the dying man at one point). “Work” is about FH helping another barfly recover wiring from his derelict house to sell for scrap, the salvaged bits of a damaged life, there’s an ex-wife, and the
more barfly tales, and an ode to the girl who pours the strong drinks. “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.”

“Emergency” is a hilarious story about working in an emergency room with an intern buddy (Georgie), a pragmatic nurse, and a sarcastic, under-equipped asshole duty physician. The boys are stealing pills and crunching them, whatever they are, a man comes in with a knife buried to the hilt in his eye socket; he can still see, although he has a bit of trouble moving his hands out of that eye; he has to, his other eye is a glass eye. On their day off they drive around in the countryside, kill a rabbit that darts out in front of the car, recover the babies that it’s carrying and wander around a drive-in theatre in the middle of a snowstorm. FH accidentally kills the baby bunnies. Surreal conversation ensues:

Does everything you touch turn to shit? Does this happen to you every time?
No wonder they call me Fuckhead.
It’s a name that’s going to stick.
I realize that.
“Fuckhead” is going to ride you to your grave.
I just said so. I agreed with you in advance.

They go back to the hospital, the drive around, the pick up a kid who had been drafted but who went AWOL, on his way to Canada. That’s it.

“Dirty Wedding” is a tale of FH and his girlfriend, the abortion clinic they went to, his horrible behavior, a strange episode of riding the subway, following a man he spotted on the train after he got off, all the way to a laundromat. FH continues where he started off and gets to the tale of her fate and that of the man she left FH for – death, death and more death.

When we were arguing on my twenty-fourth birthday, she left the kitchen, came back with a pistol, and fired it at me five times from right across the table. But she missed. It wasn’t my life she was after. It was more. She wanted to eat my heart and be lost in the desert with what she’d done, she wanted to fall on her knees and give birth from it, she wanted to hurt me as only a child can be hurt by its mother.

“The Other Man” is a short tale of FH’s visit to Seattle, meeting a guy in a bar who first tells him that he’s Polish, who tells him some crazy street stories with a Polish accent, then finally admits he’s from Cleveland. FH tries to find his friends, but gets yelled at for shouting on the street, he hooks up with a crazy woman, a newlywed, who’s willing to take him home for sex. These people are really nuts. “Happy Hour” is about roaming the earth between happy hours, the only time of the day when FH can afford to drink, drunken fighting over 25 cents (a quarter, two dimes and a nickel, all lies), he’s also on the lookout for a 17-year-old belly dancer who’s being shadowed by a benign stalker, who she gives $10 to go away for a while. “Steady Hands at Seattle General” is nearly all dialogue, FH is working at a hospital while he gets his life together, his roommate Bill tells him stories about the two times he’s been shot, each time by a different wife (ex-wife, I guess…). “Beverly Home” is the bizarre closing tale, FH now quite some time into his drug and alcohol rehabilitation but still an unbalanced individual. His surroundings are completely surreal:

Not all the people living at Beverly Home were old and helpless. Some were young but paralyzed. Some weren’t past middle age but were already demented. Others were fine, except that they couldn’t be allowed out on the street with their impossible deformities. They made God look like a senseless maniac. One man had a congenital bone ailment that had turned him into a seven-foot-tal monster. His hands were eighteen inches long. His head was like a fifty-pound Brazil nut with a face. You and I don’t know about these diseases until we get them, in which case we also will be put out of sight.

I always said hello to a grey-haired man in his early forties, vigorous and muscular, but completely senile. He’d take me by the shirtfront and say things like, “Theres a price to be paid for dreaming.” I covered his fingers with my own.

FH describes the denizens of the Beverly Home, his mundane job producing a newsletter for those who’ve lost either all hope or any semblance of a regular life. He then recounts his peeping tom experience of looking in on an Amish woman as she showers, describing also how he watches her and her husband eating, praying that he could one fine night catch them in the act of procreation. Just for kicks, Johnson describes his relationships with a beautiful dwarf woman with a normal-sized body but stubby limbs, and another woman cut in half functionally by encephalitis who swore like a sailor when they made love. “She’d had more boyfriends than anybody I’d ever heard of. Most of them had been given short lives.” Familiar story. But these things happen.

Okay, now that I’ve read the book four times, I guess I can say I can feel the characters (character), that he’s somewhat alive to me, and that the stories all contain enough essential facts that I can fill in the blanks.

I might read it one more time before I return it to the library, just for the hell of it. See what happens. But maybe I’ll read some different books in the meantime. Just to sort of break it up a bit.

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