Sure, Denis Johnson calls this a collection of short stories, but really it is a series of vignettes narrated by the same character in a very disjointed manner. This isn’t a bad thing, as I feel the stories taken as individual works are quite inadequate whereas the work as a whole is exceptional. Jesus’ Son digs deeply into the topic of addiction, examining it through not only scenes but in the very prose and structure of the book. The narrator is unreliable in almost every way, yet I would also argue that he has a heightened sense of awareness. The observations and drawn mental portraits that he gives are outstanding and incredibly detailed without risking oversaturation. I felt, at times, like I was reading the best of William Gay. With turns of phrase and descriptions of color that give the world within the pages a pulse.
In the New York Times review, Susannah Hunnewell compared Jesus’ Son to the writing of Samuel Beckett in the sense that the characters at some point become impossible to follow since they never quite realize their own stated goals. I think that’s wonderfully apt. I was really questioning the praise for the book by the time I reached the third or fourth story because of this quality. I think it works in novels, but in short stories… yikes. It feels so distant, and we’re not working with a lot of room to begin with. Great short stories have this fantastic quality of accomplishing so much in such little space. The sheer of amount of things happening in a single paragraph of a great short story is indescribable in its total brilliance. With Jesus’ Son, before I really put it all together, I have to admit the stories felt disoriented and dearthy (I’m coining that word. Dearthy.) I was developing that awful sinking feeling that manifests in a suspicion that the stories within the book are considered great because we can’t quite figure out what they’re about. Of course addiction is somewhere in there. Unreliable narrators. Gross violence. Dark humor. It’s all there. It must be good, right? Taken as individual stories… well, not really, no.
As individual stories go, if there really are any in the collection, only “Emergency” really did much for me. In the end what mattered the progression the narrator makes throughout the text. I can’t be sure what order the stories are really in (except that the last one is definitely last chronologically), but there are several moments in the collection that we could potentially call rock bottom. The narrator is addicted to hard drugs. He watches his friends die, has random, emotionless sex, steals and sells random things that aren’t his to make ends meet, and yet at the end of each section we are met with a small phrase or moment in which he seems to be self-aware and reaching out for help. Some “endings” seem too insist on his own feelings of depression or that he is undeserving of life. He seems to rock back and forth on the fact that good people are dying all around him while he lives. This is prevalent in the opening “story” in which he is picked up by a random family and watches them all die in a car crash while he escapes unharmed.
When all of this builds to an endpoint, however, and the final story is set when our narrator has finally gotten help with his addiction, Jesus’ Son ends up being wonderfully satisfying. It is not that the novel ties itself up with a neat bow and spoonfeeds the reader, it is that we get an interesting progression that avoids cliche. That’s what’s ends up making the book memorable: Johnson’s writing of success and satisfaction without venturing into the cringeworthy and cliche. It is difficult to write happiness. And in the end I’m not sure Johnson does as much as he gives his character the space to end up happy somewhere off the final page. The narrator remains so deeply flawed and interesting that he becomes impossible to not root for. He is not necessarily happy as much as he’s just doing his best in a place where he is allowed to do his best. It’s almost as if he just needed a place to exist and be accepted. That part of his namelessness is in not really having a home. He becomes redeemed not by eliminating his dysfunction, but in accepting it as a part of who he is.
The Christian overtones are strong here, and Johnson’s theology (or, better put, soteriology) is similar to the mantra of AA. That the first step is in admitting you have a problem. Shades of Infinite Jest arise, or should I say that in Infinite Jest shades of Jesus’ Son arise? You don’t do it because you believe it, you do it because it works. First you get to where you can exist and work as you. Then you learn to live with what you’ve done. There’s a final poignant scene in which the narrator mentions that he and his girlfriend have to have sex with the TV on, with late night talk shows happening in the background. If they don’t then the silence might be filled with their eyes. Now that he has gone through his salvation, how does he live with it all?
Recommended to: Those looking for an easy read with real substance. Does Hemingway with a sense of humor sound like something you could get into? Then Jesus’ Son might be a book you could get into.
Avoid as if I’m trying to sleep and you’re my new puppy who has to go outside to pee at three in the morning: There’s some intense scenes in the book and the narrative can be really frustrating if you’re not used to unreliable narrators. Yet, as far as they go this is a good place to start with them since Johnson’s prose flows so well.