JESUS’ SON BY DENIS JOHNSON

I told a friend I was reading this book, and she was surprised, seeing in it the kind of thing I’ve always avoided, the stuff I call Shane Meadows, which means films or books that involve drugs, alcohol, and the under class. I instinctively recoil from that kind of stuff [comparisons to Trainspotting is a huge red flag], for a number of reasons. I won’t go into them all, but traditionally one of my strongest objections has been that I find them patronising or offensive. I’m tired of seeing/reading the working class portrayed as brainless wife-beaters and druggies and racists. I feel like this gritty grim art reinforces the stereotype of the working class as immoral scumbags. I honestly think that a lot of it is little more than what boxing used to be, i.e. a way for people in a more privileged position to get their kicks, to watch a bunch of low-educated unvalued [albeit, in this case, fictional] people scrap it out for their entertainment. Of course, some working class people are scumbags, I would never try and deny that [I grew up around a bunch of low-lifes, so I couldn’t], but not all, and there are plenty of equally abhorrent people in more privileged positions.

Thing is, some of the worst behaviour – the worst drug abuse, the most depressing incidents – I observed when I was in London, and all the kids I knew there were moneyed, educated, had strong families. And yet, they seemed just as adrift, just as likely [if not more so] as anyone to fall off the edge of the world.  The longer you live the more you seem surrounded by people who are in the process of losing themselves, regardless of their background. That’s what I’ve noticed. When I was a kid things were scary; and everything connected to that fear seemed permanent. From my late teens onwards my life moved into different territory, one that resembled a graveyard but which was actually a kind of halfway house. Everyone drifting, moving out of your reach, like you’re a cat trying to catch a light-spot on a wall that shifts each time you pounce. People like Tom, who we tried to help, but only ever in those small scale ways that involved taking him for a drink, hoping he’d see in that gesture some kind of empathy, or assurance, because we were more afraid of facing his problems than he was. And then one day he was gone. He was no longer losing, he’d lost.  But, we had J still, and he was an alcoholic [even though no one ever acknowledged that] and they are a riot, much more fun that drug addicts. J had plenty of cash, and was always treating us at the best bars, buying cigars and brandy. I remember him once coming up to me at the end of the night and hugging me aggressively and saying take me home and fuck me! Ha! No one has ever seen a man run so fast, I could’ve broken records. Not in this lifetime, J. And then there was the time he fell asleep in the backseat of a car and the driver didn’t realise he was there and took him halfway to Milton Keynes! Brilliant. Or so we thought. Or didn’t think. Just enjoyed it. It’s easy to reminisce about those times, because the pleasant or funny incidents push back the horrible stuff lurking at the periphery of each memory.

So, I guess the reason I was prepared to read this book is because of the realisation that something like Jesus’ Son could be universal, that it can resonate with anyone, that you can recognise anyone in it, not just some dumb kid on a council estate who hasn’t got a penny to his name. The book is referred to as a short story collection, but it didn’t read that way to me. It was more like a series of connected episodes featuring a lot of the same people and places. The narrator, nicknamed Fuckhead [I hate that, btw], is the one constant, and each episode is like a little adventure, something [something usually unpleasant] that he had been involved in or witnessed. I’ll talk about a couple of individual episodes in a moment, but if you had to sum them all up it’d be a group of people taking drugs, drinking, and getting caught up in horrible situations that they often blithely pass through without acknowledging the seriousness of them [if this book was a band they’d be called Fuckhead and The Fuck Ups].

The first episode, which involves a guy catching a ride with a family, was one of my favourites. The car crashes and Fuckhead [still can’t write that name out without cringing] ends up walking the road with a baby in his arms. There was something weirdly beautiful about it, something like what Ballard was shooting for with Crash. The structure is idiosyncratic – the timeline confused, the narration jumpy – so that one isn’t sure how much of what is being relayed to you is real. A kind of gritty surrealism. I thought that worked amazingly well; and Johnson’s writing is just great, full of heart and eye-catching imagery. I was pretty much convinced that I’d stumbled on a masterpiece at this stage.

But then I ran head-first into the second story, Two Men, and that is a complete clusterfuck, one of the worst short stories I’ve ever read. In it a guy [we assume Fuckhead again] is at a party or gig or something and he has a gun, and he kisses and touches up this girl who has a boyfriend. Then he leaves and gets into his car with a couple of friends, and thereäó»s this other guy in the backseat who he doesnäó»t know. This guy is a mute or pretending to be one; they drive him around a bit, to different houses, and the narrator sounds off about the boyfriend of the girl he was kissing and how he’s expecting some retribution. Then they manage to lose the mute guy; but they spot this dealer who the narrator says sold him some dud stuff, so he waves the gun at him. He drives off and they follow him in their car to his house. They push their way into the house and the narrator threatens the wife with the gun, insisting she give up her husband. But he has jumped out of the window and the climax of the story is a suggestion that they might, er, rape the wife. Bitch please! There’s so much wrong with that. It’s just ludicrous. Johnson didn’t seem to have any idea where he wanted the story to go; it’s simply an aimless [and badly written] night-crawl, a bunch of naff and random incidents. Even Tarantino would have turned up his nose. And, yeah, I know what the defence will be, that you can’t trust the narrator, that he might be lying or exaggerating. I don’t care. Unreliable narrator or not, a story is still meant to be entertaining.

After the second story I was going to ditch the book, it irritated me that much. I didn’t though, obviously, mostly due to the good will engendered by the one preceding it. The rest of Jesus’ Son thankfully does not plumb the depths of Two Men, nor, for the most part, reach the heights of the first episode; no, it settles down to a consistent good or very good. However, there is one stand-out, the best of the bunch, which is called Emergency; if the first episode was great, then Emergency is a mini-masterpiece. In terms of plot, Fuckhead and Georgie work at the hospital, and a guy comes in with a knife through his eye. I won’t say any more than that as I don’t want to spoil it for first time readers, but for those who have read it: baby rabbits! The graveyard! Johnson’s writing is shit-hot in this one, full of humour and pathos; and the structure of the thing, with the pay-off of that last line…just wonderful stuff.

I’ve mentioned Johnson’s writing in passing a couple of times, but it probably deserves further discussion. I really liked it, in the main. It’s tough and hearty, but sentimental and sometimes beautiful, which, if you think about it, is kind of what it’s like to be out of it. I thought that was neat. However, I do think his writing is also occasionally too identikit. What I mean by that is that it is predictable at times; it gives you exactly what you think you’re going to get from this kind of thing. It’s also sloppy in places, especially in terms of the imagery which sometimes doesn’t work; and the whole thing creaks a bit, like you can’t always lose yourself in it; you’re sometimes too aware that you’re reading a book, that someone sat down and wrote this out on a typewriter or on paper, that it came from someone’s brain, for example, the end of Two Men, which is deliberately provocative, and the main character’s name [it just doesn’t feel authentic].

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4 comments

  1. I read this book for my English class. It’s definitely one of the oddest books I’ve come across. I did not care for Jesus’ Son at all to be honest. Yet I did enjoy Train Dreams, another novel by Denis Johnson. Train Dreams is wildly different from Jesus’ Son. Undeniably, Johnson is an excellent author though. For a writer to change his (or her) voice so dramatically is incredible.

    1. I don’t know; i wonder if that is merely the sign of an author who doesn’t have their own voice. As for Jesus’ Son: I really liked a couple of the stories but the rest were meh. I don’t think it’s a book I’ll go back to, and I haven’t felt compelled to check out any of his other work.

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