While trapped on an airplane traveling from Detroit to San Diego last week, I read Denis Johnson’s short story collection, Jesus’ Son, cover to cover. This came on the heels of James Welch’s Winter in the Blood, which shares a bit of a thematic thread with Johnson’s short pieces about alcoholic, drug-addled fools living amidst the stink of America’s sweaty underbelly. (Sounds harsh, I know, but that’s what they’re about.) Welch’s Native American characters are almost all alcoholics, to a one, yet Winter is by no means an alcoholic’s tale, nor is it particularly about addiction or the ramifications of having such an addiction. Johnson’s stories however, are definitely about addiction and excess, there’s no doubt about it. And addiction sucks.
It seems that a lot of Johnson’s research for these stories can be directly traced to his experiences in Berkeley, California in the early-70’s, living homeless, poor, and in search of drugs & beer. (Check out his brilliant New Yorker piece “Homeless and High” from 2002) The characters of JS are all pretty deplorable, fairly stupid, poor decision-making alcoholics and drug addicts, but Johnson’s skill for dialogue and rendering of true human nature makes each rather outstanding. Here’s a run down:
Car Crash While Hitchhiking: Just a glimpse into the sad sort of life the narrator leads – he’s in the back seat of a family’s car, sleeping off some hashish and speed, when they get into a violent collision late at night on an anonymous highway. “I lay out in the grass off the exit ramp and woke in the middle of a puddle that had filled up around me.”
Two Men: Upon leaving a dance at the local VFW, the paranoid narrator (most likely the first appearence of the character/narrator known as “Fuckhead”) and his two friends find a drunken man sleeping in the back seat of his beat up Volkswagon. The man indicates through hand motions that he cannot speak or hear, but needs a ride home. FH and his companions comply and drive the man to several addresses where he is denied entrance, before arriving at some sort of farmhouse where they ditch him. FH then becomes obsessed with chasing down a dealer who sold him some “weird stuff”, which leads to an uncomfortable conclusion.
Out on Bail: Heroin has no happy endings. “He simply went under. He died. I am still alive.”
Dundun: “I went to the farmhouse where Dundun lived to get some pharmaceutical opium from him, but I was out of luck.” Fuckhead instead ends up driving Dundun and McInnes, who has been shot in the stomach by Dundun, around in his car until McInnes dies. “I’m glad he’s dead. He’s the one who started everybody calling me Fuckhead.”
Work: “All the really good times happened when Wayne was around.” Our narrator wanders into a bar one morning & meets up with Wayne, who offers him some work. The work consists of breaking into an abandoned home (Wayne claims, “This is my house.”) and stripping all the copper from the wiring inside. Just as they finish, they see a nude woman with long red hair parasailing above the river. Then, back to the bar and the “grace and generosity” of the bartender.
Emergency: The best of the bunch, in my opinion. Fuckhead is working as an orderly in an emergency room when a man is admitted with a hunting knife “buried to the hilt in the outside corner of his left eye”. Georgie, another pill-popping orderly, calmly removes the knife while waiting for the surgical staff to arrive. FH and Georgie then leave on a “fear & loathing” sort of car ride, getting lost in the snow, accidentally killing rabbits, wandering in graveyards, picking up hitchhikers.
Dirty Wedding: There’s something unsettling about this story – in comparison with the others, which all have similar characters, I can’t put my finger on what it is about this guy that so unnerves me. Written as sort of a reminisce about the time the heroin-addicted narrator dropped his pregnant girlfriend off at an abortion clinic and then left to ride the elevated trains all night, searching the darker corners of his city for more skag. “When I coughed I saw fireflies.”
The Other Man: The narrator meets a man on the Puget Sound ferry who is pretending to be from Poland. Then he meets a woman “drunker than (he) was”. The end? I don’t get this one.
Happy Hour: “During Happy Hour, when you pay for one drink, he gives you two. Happy Hour lasts two hours.”
Steady Hands at Seattle General: Perhaps the best example available of Johnson’s amazing knack for hilarious, drug-addled dialogue. It’s only 4 pages – just pick the book up in the bookstore and read this while you’re standing in the aisle. I guarantee you’ll buy the book when you finish.
Beverly Home: “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.”
After gaining notoriety for Jesus’ Son in 1992 and fading back into the ether, Johnson roared back onto the national scene with his 2007 novel, Tree of Smoke, winner of the the National Book Award, finalist for the Pulitzer, and a 2007 Notable Book on this prestigious site. Johnson’s work is not for everyone but this collection especially resonates with the grim reality of a life of addition and general seediness. These are not people you want to know, but they are out there – and they’re closer than you think.
(By the way, that’s DJ himself there with a knife in his eyeball, from his star turn alongside Jack Black in the film adaptation of Jesus’ Son from 1999.)