What is extraordinary about these stories is the intense fragility of the voice, which has an almost otherworldly texture sometimes. Or rather, no: not otherworldly. Instead, it is a voice that seems able to encompass both the next world and this one too.
Reviewed by Paul Kane
by Denis Johnson
24 June, 2004, £6.99, ISBN: 041377242X
Jesus’ Son – the title is taken from “Heroin”, a Velvet Underground song penned by Lou Reed – could be described as either an episodic novel or a collection of 11 interlinked stories. All of these stories (if we are going with the latter point of view) share the same narrator, a broken, nameless guy who’s an alcoholic and a drug addict. We see him in a myriad number of predicaments and at all stations of his journey: as a bullied youth who might be susceptible to drugs as a route of escape, when he’s in the most desperate throes of his addiction and finally, at the end, as a person in recovery who had “never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”
What is extraordinary about these stories is the intense fragility of the voice, which has an almost otherworldly texture sometimes. Or rather, no: not otherworldly. Instead, it is a voice that seems able to encompass both the next world and this one too. It is present in the first story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”, in a passage where the narrator looks upon a driver who is dying:
And therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real. (p.9)
Each story has passages such as this, small statements of witness and testimony. In another story, “Work”, the narrator writes about a barmaid whom he knew when he was in the grip of alcoholism. She was a favourite barmaid at the bar that he frequented, because she would fill the glasses right to the brim, so that “you had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom.” Sometime after, he bumps into her again:
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.” (p.66)
Disconnection is a theme that recurs throughout, but it assumes its most virulent guise in “Dirty Wedding”, a story which charts the history of a violent, doomed relationship. What is revealed at the end is hate:
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. (p.101)
Overall, as one might imagine, there is a melancholy mood to most of the book but there are also moments of rapture and epiphany. One such occurs in “Happy Hour”, a story about a drunken romantic liaison – or maybe it’s about love – certainly Johnson’s prose is worthy of that emotion:
It was there. It was. The long walk down the hall. The door opening. The beautiful stranger. The torn moon mended. Our fingers touching away the tears. It was there. (p.113)
I have quoted quite a bit from these stories in order to show both the sublime beauty of Denis Johnson’s prose and the voice that he is able to achieve here. These are the reasons – rather than plot or character, although the latter is real enough – why they should be read. Jesus’ Son is an excoriating and perhaps even a spiritual journey that will sear your soul.
About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Find a heroin addiction treatment program: http://www.addiction-treatment.com/find/heroin/florida.