Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
It took me 25 years to get around to reading Denis Johnson, and the logical book to start with is clearly Jesus’ Son. It’s a series of eleven short stories, all written in the first-person voice of a man who has hit bottom somewhere along the way and may or may not be trying real hard to do better. The world has a way of conspiring against him as he goes through the motions.
But it’s not so much what happens to him that matters here as the way he tells us his story. His voice is plain and direct, and the ironies we pick up aren’t offered on purpose. He’s almost like a living camera wandering through the vile underworld, and we’re watching it all through him. Losers galore. Grim parts of town. Other people stumbling around like zombies, but occasionally possessed of keen insights. I’ve never been particularly fond of stories (or songs) about the heroin life, and I wouldn’t be in this case either if it weren’t for Johnson’s writing. “The mirror was a knife dividing everything from itself.” He slays you with little lines that seem casually dropped but they’re full of authority and reverberating meaning.
I had to laugh at the excerpt of the Publishers Weekly review from 1992 (on Amazon). The dunderhead who wrote it must really feel like a schmuck now, since the book is a genuine classic, but that’s PW for you, and its evil twin Kirkus.
There are too many poignant moments in this short book to list, but one is definitely the picture our peeping Tom narrator paints of a husband washing his wife’s feet after an argument. We thought they were having sex in there, and it turns out to be a mournful, shaming ritual that appears to have no impact on the peeper, though he goes on to show us that he’s getting closer to grace every day.
Oddly enough a lot of humorous moments pop up amid the bleakness, like the Polish man in a bar who ultimately confesses he’s not from Poland at all. He’s been faking the accent as just something to do. Many conversations in the book are crazy non sequiturs that scream realism. And people come and go, living and dying, as people will do. Especially drug addicts.
This is one of those books I’ll be happy to reread every so often, soaking up details I missed on earlier run-throughs. Like certain movies that don’t grow old, Jesus’ Son won’t lose its bewildering potency.