“What word can be uttered about those fields? She stood in the middle of them as on a high mountain, with her red hair pulled out sideways by the wind, around her the green and grey plains pressed down flat, and all the grasses of Iowa whistling one note.”
When I was 11 years old, I wandered the sidewalks of an outlet mall looking for a bookstore while my mother and stepfather shopped. We were somewhere between Maryland and New York, but that’s as specific as I can get—it was one of the blurry road trips between upstate New York and our vacation condo in Ocean City, and I don’t know if we were coming or going. But I remember it was raining, and if I had to guess by my melancholy mood, I’d put us in southern Delaware on the way home.
I found my bookstore in a corner. It was the only place in the world that made these shopping excursions bearable, and in the outlets without them, I’d have to content myself with two miserable hours spent squeezing the orange plush tags in a Nautica store. But here I could find relief. I surveyed my choices. The only sections that had a real shot with me were fiction, history, sports or humor. Humor tended to win out on most occasions, but that day I chose fiction. I was in a sad mood, and I wanted to find a book to match. Near a bottom shelf, I think, I came across Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. I remember reading the opening quotation on the otherwise empty page just after the dedication. It was a rhyming couplet written by a man I’d never heard of named Lou Reed:
“When I’m rushing on my run
and I feel just Jesus’ Son…”
As an 11-year-old, I thought that first line was about football, which should give you a good indication that I wasn’t quite prepared to read the collection of short stories that followed. And how strange, I thought, to feel like Jesus’ son while running on the gridiron. What could it mean? Even the title of the book struck me as awkward. Do you pronounce the double ess sound, making three straight esses in “Jesus-es Son”? (Later, when I first hear the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed would provide the answer when he sang the words as if there was no apostrophe at all. But that was a lifetime ahead.)
I have no idea why I bought the book. It’s a complete mystery to me still, because nothing about it should have appealed. But buy it I did, and I read the whole thing on the ride home. It struck me as feverish and gripping and almost totally incomprehensible. I can’t remember if I understood that the narrator was a lonely and lost drug addict floating around rural Iowa, Seattle, Chicago and Phoenix in the early ’70s, or whether I deeply felt any of the sadness or beauty in what has become one of my three favorite books. But I read it, at least, and I was so intrigued that I bought another of his books, Fiskadoro, a post-apocalyptic work that was even stranger and less understandable.
And then, not knowing what to do with Denis Johnson, I forgot about his books for a decade. Forgot them so thoroughly, in fact, that when I took a friend’s recommendation and bought Jesus’ Son to read again at age 22, I was well into the first story before I began to sense something familiar. By the second story, the memories had come flooding back. Imagine that experience—and maybe, even probably, you can—of reaching out and touching a version of yourself from the past, from a different life that was still the same. Suddenly a memory bridge appears, and there you are.
This time, I registered the book’s full impact. In Johnson’s 11 short stories, he traces the life of the nameless narrator, a man in his early twenties who has lost himself and his dreams to a world of alcohol and drugs. Liquor and heroin are his weapons of choice, and he struggles to find his purpose in a landscape that’s both nightmarish and ultimately redemptive. After re-discovering the book, I’ve read it at least once every year since. And it’s not something I plan. At some point—and I never know why—it comes to mind and I have to pick it up.
Whenever I try to convince people to read Jesus’ Son, which happens more often than you’d think, I usually start by trying to describe Johnson’s beautiful crisp prose, as in the passage above from the short story “Work,” my favorite of the collection. Then I try to describe the sadness and the intensity, how it always shakes me to the core, but how I somehow leave the experience feeling better about myself and the world. The argument that seems to work best, though—and, I’ll admit it, it’s one that would appeal to me too—is this: you’ll finish the damn thing in three hours. Two, if you’re a fast reader. My copy is 133 pages long, and while Johnson doesn’t use the artificially abbreviated cadence of Hemingway, there’s a clarity and economy in the words that makes the experience fly. You don’t read this book until you read it again.
The visionary quality of the descriptive passages, and the contrast with the very normal aspects of real life, often in proximity, can be stunning. This excerpt from “Happy Hour” shows the way ordinary details can become hallucinatory in Johnson’s hands:
I was in Pig Alley. It was directly on the harbor, built out over the waters on a rickety pier, with floors of carpeted plywood and a Formica bar. The cigarette smoke looked unearthly. The sun lowered itself through the roof of clouds, ignited the sea, and filled the big picture window with molten light, so that we did our dealing and dreaming in a brilliant fog.
He can be very funny, too, though the comedy is tinged with the sadness of a life on the verge of waste. In “Dirty Wedding,” the narrator brings his girlfriend to an abortion clinic, and while she’s undergoing the procedure, he has a conversation with one of the clinic workers.
After the film I talked to a man about vasectomies. A man with a mustache. I didn’t like him.
“You have to be sure,” he said.
“I’m never getting anybody pregnant again. I know that much.”
“Would you like to make an appointment?”
“Would you like to give me the money?”
“It won’t take long to save the money.”
“It would take me forever to save the money,” I corrected him.
You couldn’t find a more poignant way to show how the life of the addict precludes any future certainties, yet Johnson manages to imbue it with a raw kind of comedy.
When I began to learn about the author, it didn’t surprise me that Johnson had started out as a poet. The imagery in Jesus’ Son is so stark and compelling that it reads like the work of an artist with an instinct for evocative poetic language, rather than someone who came up with a more prosaic fiction writer’s background. The stories take inventive liberties, but Johnson was a drug addict in his youth, and drew heavily from his experiences. In 2007, he won the National Book Award for Tree of Smoke, a sprawling work about the Vietnam War that shares Jesus’ Son’s knack for startling, otherworldly passages.
Jesus’ Son was very well received by critics, and the individual stories appeared in places like The New Yorker, The Paris Review and Esquire prior to its publication. Still, I’m always surprised by how few of my well-read friends know about it. It’s an immensely readable work, and when I meet people who have read it, we can talk for hours. There’s a cult vibe there, an obsessive something which brings us together. In our generation, that seems like a boring and even pretentious idea when you’re talking about a book, rather than music or film, but Jesus’ Son is no ordinary book.
Its odd connection with my past—the strange coincidence of having read and not fully understood it as an 11-year-old—is one of the inexplicable turns that I think about a lot. Why did I pluck it from the shelf? Why that book? Does it imply some kind of design, or is that ridiculous?
In any case, the experience of falling in love with the same thing for the second time is an odd gift, and if you never read the book yourself, at least indulge me with one more excerpt. This is the staggering conclusion from the story “Work,” the one that always leaves me feeling breathless and full. The narrator has spent the day in semi-honest labor, pulling copper wire from an abandoned house to sell for scrap. Now he has a few dollars, and he comes to rest at his favorite bar and finds his favorite bartender waiting.
We were grimy and tired. Usually we felt guilty and frightened, because there was something wrong with us, and we didn’t know what it was; but today we had the feeling of men who had worked.
The Vine had no jukebox, but a real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. “Nurse,” I sobbed. She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring. “You have a lovely pitching arm.” You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom. 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.