annotation by Diane Sherlock
First, issue your disclaimer. Mine is that I’m not a big fan of short stories. Denis Johnson changed my mind with this, now one of my all-time favorite books, and showed how to braid narrative and use the lyric register (poetic language). Jesus’ Son is a mosaic of short stories that could be also considered an episodic novel (ha!). Titled from Lou Reed’s song, Heroin, these linked stories chronicle the progress of the addiction and tentative recovery of its narrator. One of the first locations mentioned in the first story is Bethany, Missouri. Bethany was best known as the place where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Here, the man from Bethany is not just killed, but “killed forever” in a head-on collision, containing the dark humor with a subtle biblical reference that suffuses most of the stories. The stories contain a through line to the redemption of the narrator in eleven chapters, one short of the twelve steps of recovery, as well as the biblical significance of the twelve apostles, twelve tribes of Israel, twelve Stations of the Cross, and so on, indicating that the final chapter of this man’s life is yet unwritten.
An accident begins the series of stories. The narrator lets us know that he takes just about any drug offered to him: amphetamines, alcohol, hash and that he will end up in detox “some years later.” Moving back and forth through time, the author creates not only tension, but the shock of the accident, the sense of disorientation during and after the impact. He combines the fluidity of time with slightly ominous similes, “Midwestern clouds like great grey brains” and hyperbole “we’d torn open our chests and shown our cowardly hearts” with straight reporting, “The house looked abandoned, no curtains, no rugs” to create the sense of the narrator’s world which is at once funny, disturbing, and a little off.
One of the best things about Johnson’s writing are sentences like, “The jolt of fear burned all the red out of my blood.” The reader is left to imagine the residue of cowardice, of antithesis of red-bloodedness. He also builds tension in one story, such as Two Men with the narrator holding a gun to a woman’s head then dispels it with the title of the next, Out On Bail, even though the story does not directly take up where the previous story left off. By the time the reader gets to Out On Bail, the narrator makes it clear that he is fully into heroin, the same drug that costs Jack Hotel his life via overdose.
The religious subtext surfaces dramatically on the last page of Dundun in a particularly rich paragraph as the author continues to consider cruelty. He again plays with time, “It felt like the moment before the Savior comes. And the Savior did come, but we had to wait a long time.” The next paragraph moves to the subject of Dundun’s brutality torturing Jack Hotel, which leads into the conclusion containing a reference to Matthew 6:3 “His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing.” The narrator prefaces the reference with a direct address to the reader, “Will you believe me when I tell you he had kindness in his heart?” He then takes the biblical reference from Matthew normally taught as an admonition to humility, kindness, and generosity, and turns it on its head followed by an explanation for the inexplicable: “…certain important connections had been burned through” with an invitation toward understanding, “If I opened up your head and ran a hot smoldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.”
My favorite of the stories was Emergency, which plays with the theme of blindness. There is the literal blindness of Terrence Weber cured when Georgie simply removes the knife from his eye as the doctors are trying to figure out how to accomplish the same, the narrator’s blindness to self, having ingested as many drugs as “a very famous guru of the love generation,” Georgie’s blindness from the sudden change in light “’I’m starting to get my eyes back,’ Georgie said in another minute,” and the blinding light caused by the environment, “The day was cloudless, blinding.” This is something I want to keep in mind for my writing – to use the theme in a number of ways and on several levels.
The progression of stories after blindness move from his relationship to Michelle, then to finishing the story of the two men, the narrator’s drinking, until the last two stories which concern his recovery and redemption through service, a basic tenet of the twelve steps. Of course, after tracking him through desperate, violent, and drug-induced events, it’s not surprising that his redemption, too, is unusual, peeping on a Mennonite couple which builds the tension of the last story. His fascination with the Mennonites ends with watching the foot washing and its inherent symbolism of servitude, echoing Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.
By the end, the narrator is improving each day, learning to live sober. The narrative of the book is the narrative of the addiction experience. The construction of the last paragraph initially indicates that the narrator sees his girlfriend and the residents of Beverly Home as ‘other’ until the very last sentence, “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” The narrator has not reached the Twelfth Step of AA (Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs) and yet he has, by relaying these stories. The assortment of scenes from his life carries the reader with the narrator from peripheral drugged up hitchhiker to member of a community.