JESUS’ SON BY DENIS JOHNSON

The longer you live the more you seem surrounded by people who are in the process of losing themselves. 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 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.

We still had J, and he was an alcoholic, although no one ever acknowledged that. Alcoholics 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! No one has ever seen a man run so fast; I could have 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. We didn’t know the guy; the driver, I mean. J had broken into the car, somehow, in search of a bed. That was 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.

“Sometimes what I wouldn’t give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m. telling lies to one another, far from God.”

Jesus’ Son is referred to as a short story collection, but is more a series of connected episodes featuring a lot of the same people and places. The narrator, nicknamed Fuckhead [I hate that, by the way], is the one constant, and each episode is like a little adventure, something [something usually unpleasant] that he had been involved in or witnessed. The first story, which involves a guy catching a ride with a family, was one of my favourites. The car crashes and Fuckhead [I 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 nailed in the best parts of Crash, which is to say those parts that don’t involve mucus. 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 unearthed a masterpiece at this stage.

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But then I ran head-first into the second story, Two Men, and that is, to be frank, a fucking mess. 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 there’s this other guy in the backseat who he doesn’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. They somehow 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, well, rape the wife. There’s so much wrong with all this that it’s hard to know where to start with critiquing it, but I was most irritated by the fact that Johnson didn’t seem to have any idea where he wanted the story to go. It’s simply an aimless 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 or just too high to determine what is real and what is not. But I don’t care. Unreliable narrator or not, a story is still meant to be entertaining, and this one isn’t.

“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.”

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 real stand-out, the best of the bunch, which is called Emergency. 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. Oh, and the graveyard. Johnson’s writing is wonderful in this one, full of humour and pathos; and the structure of the thing, with the pay-off of that last line, is perfect.

I’ve mentioned Johnson’s writing style more than once now, but it probably deserves even further discussion. I really liked it, in the main. It’s tough, but sentimental and sometimes beautiful, which, if you think about it, is kind of what it’s like to be out of your head on certain substances. However, I do think his writing is also occasionally too obvious or predictable. What I mean by that is that it often gives you exactly what you think you’re going to get from this sort of thing, which is to say a ‘classic’ American novel about lowlifes. 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. At times, I was too aware that I was 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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