It is no accident that Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son opens with a bloody, fatal car wreck on a rainy two-lane highway under a spread of “Midwestern clouds like great grey brains.” This incident from “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” sets the stage and the tone for what follows: a series of head-on collisions that Johnson’s narrator—an on-the-run junkie—encounters over the course of eleven electrifying stories. Johnson hurls his readers on a shotgunned journey through emergency rooms and dope dens, detoxification wards and rest homes for those whose “impossible deformities…made God look like a senseless maniac.” The world of Jesus’ Son is a place, a purgatory of sorts, where “the rapist met his victim, the jilted child discovered its mother. But nothing could be healed.” These are the kinds of moments around which Denis Johnson shapes stones that are destined not only to linger but to last, moments that once they are lived through (for to read this book is to live through it) will never—an never-be forgotten.
In Jesus’ Son, Johnson breaks narrative rules and conventions with the candor of a strung-out junkie pawning off his mother’s jewelry box in order to cop a quick fix. Standard trademarks of the genre, such as telling a straightforward story (with an Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end), have been tossed aside in favor of a fractured, bullet-holed prose fabric that reflects a man’s disjointed hallucinatory memory.
In “Two Men,” Johnson begins: “I met the first man as I was going home from a dance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall.” The second man never even turns up in this story, although he does show his face in “The Other Man”: “But I never finished telling you about the two men. I never even started describing the second one.” Johnson’s narrator speaks about past events as they randomly reenter his memory. Re does not attempt to assemble the mishaps of his life in any kind of chronological order. Re is casual about what he tells, as if he were speaking not about himself but about a stranger, someone he met one night at a bar.
Johnson is not the first to write about the criminally drug- driven drifters who inhabit the darker corners of the world, in bars like the Vine, “a long, narrow place, like a train car that wasn’t going anywhere,” where Johnson’s misfits, “people [who] all seemed to have escaped from someplace,” converge in a shared sense of malaise, “telling lies to one another, far from God.” Norman Mailer, William Burroughs, and even Truman Capote have all written decent empathic books about those who live outside the margins of acceptable behavior. Johnson’s prose in Jesus’ Son, however, is so poetically charged with lines such as “I knew every raindrop by its name” and “When I coughed I saw fireflies” that it is difficult to dislike or to judge the acts of cruel indifference of his narrator. Johnson himself resists condemnation or explanation of his characters’ ways. If Johnson’s Jesus’ son is a junkie, a thief, a man on the run, the reason is simple: He is, period. Johnson deliberately strips his stories of flashback, as if he were simply not interested in how or why a person becomes who or what he may be. Instead, these stories are sprinkled with gear-changing flash-forwards that propel the narrative into a present moment: the time frame from which the narrator is recalling his past-that is, his previous life. In “Dirty Wedding,” a story in which the narrator gets his girlfriend pregnant and they opt for an abortion, he explains: A man in dark glasses shadowed Michelle right up the big steps to the door, chanting softly in her ear. I guess he was praying. What were the words of his prayer? I wouldn’t mind asking her that question. But it’s winter, the mountainS around me are tall and deep with snow, and I could never find her now.
Since the publication of his debut novel Angels in 1983, extending up through Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991), Johnson, in the words of one critic, “has been...
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