Jesus’ Son

Denis Johnson

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: May 26, 2017
Category: Fiction

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Denis Johnson (1949-2017): The obituary is written in a state of surprise — he was only 67. I admired all his books, but especially his first one, a delightful introduction to a writer of immense promise, now sadly fulfilled.

"Jesus’ Son” is one of the ten funniest books I’ve ever read.

A guy has a knife stuck in his eye; a drugged-out hospital orderly saves him without quite knowing what he’s done.

Another guy gets shot in a farmhouse, for no reason.

A third guy overdoses.

Prison looms for everyone.

And it all takes place in the gloomy flatland of the Midwest, circa 1971.

You sputter: This is a bummer. Indeed it is. And if you think heroin addiction is tawdry (and it is, it is) and the people who use hard drugs are losers (and they are, they are) and there is Nothing Funny about an overdose, then these eleven stories are so not for you.

But if you have a taste for Black Humor or an appreciation of outlandish characters — or even an ear for brilliant writing — this 160-page book will give you the most delightful two-to-three hours of reading you’ve experienced in a long, long time. Well, maybe not three hours. Maybe a lot more — for if, like me, you occasionally find yourself in need of the kind of laugh that only a book can provide, your eye goes instinctively to “Jesus’ Son.” Your hand involuntarily removes it from the shelf. And before you know it, you’re lost in the world of this remarkable book. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

PS: It’s also a remarkably affecting, funny-sad movie, starring Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, the obligatory Dennis Hopper and the ultra-wild-and-crazy Jack Black. [To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here.]

Let’s just consider the first story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.”  It is exactly that. The narrator is a hitchhiker who, on one leg of his trip that day, has been fed pills by a salesman. He is now wired and omniscient:

I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside that we’d have an accident in the storm.

The accident occurs. The driver dies. His wife survives. Now we’re at the hospital:

Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.

And then comes an ending that confounds all expectation: 

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

That last line — directly addressed to the reader — announces that these will not be “traditional” stories, with characters who describe their troubles and fix them. This is a world of the lost: freaks abandoned by God, people who connect with holiness only (in the words of the Lou Reed song that provides the title) “when I’m rushing on my run.”

The power of these stories is the writing, first and foremost, but there is also the sense that these stories are real.  As Johnson recalls, "I was addicted to everything….When I was 21, I went into my first psych ward for alcohol." Then he moved on to drugs. "But I was not a constant junkie. You can’t just go into a drugstore and say, ‘I’ll have some heroin, please.’ You have to be prepared to enter into all kinds of adventures that I wasn’t strong enough for."

Those adventures included study at the University of Iowa with Raymond Carver. He wrote “Jesus’ Son” because he owed the IRS $10,000 and had these stories in his head:

I never even wrote that book, I just wrote it down. I would tell these stories apropos of nothing about when I was drinking and using and people would say, "You should write these things down." I was probably 35 when I wrote the first story. The voice is kind of a mix in that it has a young voice, but it’s also someone who’s looking back. I like that kind of double vision. So I worked on them once in a while, then I started using stories I heard other people tell, and then I started making some up. Pretty soon it was fiction. Then I just forgot about it. I thought, I’m not going to parade my defects, my history of being a spiritual cripple, out in front of a lot of other people. But once in a while I’d write a little more — I would just hear the voices.

He wrote books before, he’s written books since, but “Jesus’ Son” is the one that readers cherish. Is it that there’s something about hair-raising stories told by addicts that we just can’t resist? Or is it just the voices? Either way, these stories are…addictive.   

Short Takes

The first beach read of the summer: “The Finishing School”

I went to the kind of New England boarding school that makes you feel — wrongly — superior to the high school graduates when you get to college, so it was quite a shock for me to discover an elite even more elite than the preppies: the kids who’d gone to school in Switzerland. It was thus a pleasure to read Joanna Goodman’s “The Finishing School,” a novel that focuses on Kersti Kuusk, a scholarship student in the 1990s at the Lycée Internationale Suisse, and Cressida, her beautiful, rich classmate. Kersti has gone on to become a bestselling novelist. Naturally the school invites her to speak at its100th birthday celebration. And the trouble starts: In 1998, Cressida jumped or was pushed off a balcony at the Lycée. She’s still technically alive, but she’ll never be able to tell her story. What would a writer of historical women’s fiction do? You guessed it. “The Finishing School” drops all the right names, but it’s far from an exercise in snobbery. Its subjects are young love and lust, privilege and striving, and faculty-student relations that redefine that term. There’s a missing ledger and a dark secret, and the story is as tasty as braised lamb shanks and as easy to swallow as a good Riesling — add this to your stack of beach reads. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Owen Lewis: “When a man loves a woman…”

When we last read Owen Lewis, it was 2015, and the psychiatrist/teacher/poet had just published “Best Man.” The title could not have been more ironic or bittersweet — the 23 poems were about his brother Jason, who died in 1980, age 23. Jason was the tragedy every family fears: a bright, drugged thief and liar. Here the dead talk, and the survivor talks back. [To buy the paperback of “Best Man” from Amazon, click here.] “Marriage Map,” in contrast, is about his enviable second marriage. The quotation from Homer that is the book’s epigram signals the tone: “There is nothing nobler or more admirable than when two people who see eye to eye keep house as man and wife.” But a second marriage invariably invites contrasts. In the first poem, “The day I met you/ a crane fell, smashing cars, slicing six/ stories of corners off a building.” Owen calls Susan to explain the trouble. She says she has a “Plan B.” He’s breathless. More accurately, she’s holding his breath — the breath of a man whose marriage is, like the crane, collapsing. The last line: “Who had ever considered for me a ‘Plan B’?” In these poems, love revives him, strengthens and affirms him. But not without cost. In a second marriage, you can’t avoid the shadows of all that’s come before: “We bring an in-gathering/ of exiles, taken from themselves/ scattered along the rivers of home.” So here are his brother, parents, first wife. Shining through is the simple fact of an abiding romance: “We make of time what we will… This wedding starts again, forever.” These poems are moonlight through a bedroom window. [To buy “Marriage Map” from Amazon, click here.]

Dominique Salerno: 3 chances to see a rising star dazzle… in a box

When Dominique Salerno presented “The Box Show” last year, the Times reviewer called it “the most purely delicious production I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe Festival.” Now she’s back for a limited run, and I can understand why she got that rave: She does the entire show in a black box that’s 35″ x 35″ x 23″ — and in that claustrophobic space, she delivers 25 sketches, with hilarious characters that include a British pop star, the entire Greek Army squabbling inside the Trojan horse, and a baby in utero. If you’re free on a few Sunday nights — May 21 or June 4 or 11 — consider spending 90 minutes at 123 E 24th Street. Tickets are a bargain: $18. Click for info and tickets.

The answer to the question in the title of “What to Do About the Solomons” — read it.

American Jews in Israel. An inheritance, which means money and a lot more. Back in Los Angeles, a son’s alleged financial crime — what kind of crime did you expect? — has become a family scandal. Not promising material, when you consider how Jews are presented in American fiction. The writer loves them. Or the writer hates them (or, more correctly, hates herself/himself). And in a first novel yet! I ask you: What was the last great first novel you read about Jews? Goodbye, Columbus. Okay, what else?

Bethany Ball’s “What To Do About The Solomons” is my favorite length for fiction: blessedly short. But in those 235 pages, we get a large — there are so many characters that Ball starts the book with a Solomon family tree — and unruly clan. They’re like moose with antlers locked: They can’t get closer, they can’t get apart. But you’ll have no trouble telling them apart. And coming to like them, for very different reasons.

For a novel about Real and Serious Things, this is a very funny book. Bethany Ball writes with wit as sharp as the blade of a mohel. For once, I totally concur with a New York Times review: “I ended ‘What to Do About the Solomons’ absolutely swimming with affection, not just for the characters but for the multiple worlds that created them. Despite their collective penchant for psychodrama, there’s something profoundly lovely — and loving — about the Solomons. And about Bethany Ball’s debut.” [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]