DIY MFA Reading List: “Jesus’ Son” by Denis Johnson

The title of Denis Johnson’s sparse, haunting short story collection Jesus’ Son is pulled from the Velvet Underground song Heroin, written by Lou Reed. And in one of the more hilarious stories, Emergency, a character’s opening thoughts perfectly sum up the dreamlike nature of this collection:

“There’s so much goop inside of us, man,” he said, “and it all wants to get out.” He leaned his mop up against a cabinet.

“What are you crying for?” I didn’t understand.

Johnson’s protagonist, known only as FH (shorthand for the more obscene nickname given to him by one of his stoner friends), fumbles his way through eleven linked vignettes that, taken together, sketch a more poignant, modern, and truly felt portrait of addiction than Malcolm Lowry’s infernal Under the Volcano. FH lives in a self-constructed sort of alternate reality, his conscious perceptions sprinkled with the dreamlike afterimages bubbling up from the ether of his daydreams and nightmares.

With these stories, Johnson pulls off an impressive feat – he adds to the literature of addiction without relying on its well-established tropes: the exhilarating “first taste”, promising a glimpse at an alternate means of perception, the voyeuristic descent to “rock bottom”, the inevitable brush with crime, the twelve-step road back to recovery. Instead, FH drifts through the “great pity” of his life seemingly untouched, bouncing between scenes of mayhem, violence, and loss with the thoughtless grace of a child: “As nearly as I could tell, I’d wandered into some sort of dream.” FH truly doesn’t understand who he is, where he is going, or why he is on this planet, other than to wonder that he might be “the victim of a joke.”

And these stories are funny. In 1999 Jack Black and Billy Crudup starred in a film adaptation (view the Jesus’ Son movie trailer here), which pretty effectively captures the quirky, fun, and yet heartbreaking nature of Johnson’s collection. Rather than dwell on the fear and loathing that a sober mind might encounter in the big, wide, scary world beyond our eyelids, FH runs from it all. He avoids any responsibility for his actions and his fate by escaping into a kind of eternal, stoned, present – the world measured in hazy micro-moments, free from his guilty past or the anxiety that his future might contain.

And some of those micro-moments are beautiful (if you can’t find this collection in the fiction stacks at the library, be sure to check the poetry shelves, too). “I knew every raindrop by its name,” FH says. “I sensed everything before it happened.”

But numbed-out on narcotics and driving drunk from “the bombed-out squalor” of one dive bar to the next, FH can merely watch, witness, and transcribe his adventures … without really investing himself in the outcome. Insulated from the inner joy or sorrow that his misadventures might entail, FH is free to transcribe horrifying events with humorous, often insightful glee. The great tragedy is that for the majority of these stories, FH is looking for (but unable to experience) true emotional connection with the world around him.

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.

Johnson leaves it up to us, as his readers, to summon the feelings FH might be going through … and the experience can sometimes feel strangely voyeuristic, as if we shouldn’t be privy to such private, shameful, and intimate thoughts. FH, too, is a voyeur, spying on “normal” life in an attempt to remember what it might have been like. In a story called Beverly Home, FH crouches in the bushes to watch a Mennonite couple in their bedroom. He “wanted to watch them fucking”, but instead witnesses an argument. The Mennonite wife, crying, walks to the window and draws back the curtains:

I thought to run, but it was such a nauseating jolt that suddenly I didn’t know how to move. But after all it didn’t matter. My face wasn’t two feet from hers, but it was dark out and she could only have been looking at her own reflection, not at me. She was alone in the bedroom. She still had all her clothes on. I had the same flutter in my heart that I got when I happened to stroll past a car parked off by itself somewhere, with a guitar or a suede jacket on the front seat, and I’d think: But anybody could steal this.

The husband ends the argument by eating his angry words and washing his wife’s feet in a basin. This scene seems to imply that self-reflection is something FH covets. It will mean taking a closer look at himself, but it might also mean abandoning his special powers of perception … he will be blinded to the micro-moments of grace sometimes offered by his drugs. Exhilarated by the depth of the feelings he has glimpsed, FH eventually does make it back from the wasteland of addiction, learns to live sober, and deals with the confusing aftermath of his half-remembered actions.

All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.