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Margaret's AUGUST Dotters Pick

Jesus' Son: Stories by Denis Johnson

I tend to like sad stories. I’ve never really been sure why that is. It seems to me that writers somehow find more beauty in sad moments. Or in happy moments that you know won’t stay that way.

Truthfully, this bothers me. I am a happy person. I have a happy life. I like to be happy much more than I like to be sad so why do I like reading sad stories?

Jesus’ Son may have shed some light on my penchant for sad, lonely, lost causes. This collection is heavy. These characters are addicts. Their cravings for alcohol and drugs define who they are and what they do. The unnamed narrator spends most of the book moving from one bad decision to another, harming others both mentally and physically. He leaves, he runs, he wanders, and always without a destination. People around him suffer and die. He is often delusional, his experiences told through sensory observations. When he is high or drunk, the setting of each story moves to the forefront of his consciousness as if that is all he can remember or process.

In a stirring description in “Dundun,” the narrator focuses on the scenery rather than the man bleeding to death in his backseat:

“It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving we were just getting smaller and smaller.

What can be said about those fields? There were black birds circling above their own shadows, and beneath them the cows stood around smelling one another’s butts.”

The landscape is always tinged with the despair, ecstasy, or loneliness of the moment. Johnson’s descriptions of these settings are different from anything I’ve ever read. He harnesses unnatural imagery to evoke nature - describing clouds as brains, for example. His work is exquisite.

The narrator is most concerned with himself, so mirrors become a motif throughout the stories. “Out on Bail” puts the narrator’s loneliness at the forefront, with mirrors reflecting his delusion that he is not alone: “Jack Hotel was beside me in the mirror, drinking. There were some others there exactly like the two of us, and we were comforted.” Of course, he and Jack Hotel are only looking at themselves. His tragic observations of others are underscored by the fact that he recognizes his fate in them: “Because we all believed we were tragic, and we drank. We had that helpless, destined feeling. We would die with handcuffs on...And yet we were always being found innocent for ridiculous reasons.”

The last sentence showcases what makes this collection special: hope. In scene after scene of hopelessness, the unnamed narrator is hopeful. The more he is surrounded by death, the more he reveres life.

In “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” the narrator finds a man dying. His thoughts tragically emphasize that there is a moment when awareness and communication cease: “His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn’t be taking many more. I knew that but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down at 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.” Then the narrator describes the moment when this man’s wife is told that her husband is dead:

“Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”

Her sadness is her power; it signals that she is alive. Jesus’ Son is both aware of death and celebrating life lived with abandon.

So maybe, at its core, this collection is not just sad stories.

In a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review there is an article by Will Blythe titled “Denis Johnson: A Lot Like Prayer.” Blythe was friends with Johnson and asked if he would like to work as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine. Johnson accepted the position and Blythe worked as his editor. He states that “Battles never hardened Denis. He never assumed a tough-guy persona. His stories, fiction and nonfiction alike, exalt the innate dignity inherent in cowardice and failure, in loserdom, in life at the bottom of the barrel. He seems to ask whether at some level, cowardice might not be the same as love of life.” This was illuminating for me as a person who wishes I didn’t like sad stories so much. Jesus’ Son isn’t about writing sad stories of alcoholism and drug use. Without glorifying or luxuriating in his characters’ questionable choices, Johnson venerates them as lovers of life who strive to feel strong emotion no matter how much it might hurt.

Blythe recalls an anecdote from one of his conversations with Johnson:

“He went to Kabul after the Taliban had recently taken the city and hanged the country’s former leader from a traffic pole. I asked him how he handled those sweaty-palmed encounters when combatants approached him, guns cocked and pointed. ‘I smile and laugh,’ he said. ‘It’s a human thing. People all over the world tend to like it when you smile and laugh.’”

Whether fiction or nonfiction, stories bridge the chasm of difference that so often exists between people. I’m not an alcoholic or a drug user. I don’t live in a society where I am approached by cocked machine guns. I don’t pass bodies hanging from telephone poles on my way to the grocery store. But I can smile and laugh. And I can choose to revere life and live it recklessly, with abandon. I’m not so different from these characters or from these people. We are human.  

“Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.” - from “Dundun” by Denis Johnson