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Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson
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Jan 05, 2008

really liked it

“Jesus’ Son” by Denis Johnson (1992)

You’ve eaten a bottle of amphetamines.
You’ve also drunk bourbon and smoked hashish in the span of a few hours, and your hitchhiking luck has run out. It’s raining, but you lie down by the exit ramp on the interstate to go to sleep. You see, you don’t care whether you live or die.
This is where Denis Johnson begins his first story in his lyrically depressive collection, Jesus’ Son: his drug-addled narrator rising up from sleeping in a downpour with a sopping wet sleeping bag.

"What was the point, even, of rolling up my sleeping bag when I was too wet to be let into anybody’s car? I draped it around me like a cape. The downpour raked the asphalt and gurgled in the ruts. My thoughts zoomed pitifully. The traveling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name."

A car stops for him, “and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we’d have an accident in the storm.
“You are the ones,” he thinks of the family.
Johnson’s writing is lyrical and unblinking. When a semi passes the car, “We were lost in a blinding spray and a warfare of noises such as you get being towed through an automatic car wash.” At the moment of the accident, “A liquid which I knew right away was human blood flew around the car and rained down on my head.” The driver’s face is “smashed and dark with blood. It made my teeth hurt to look at him—but when he spoke, it didn’t sound as if any of this teeth were broken.”
This is Johnson’s peculiar talent, chronicling a scene with a sensitive but detached eye, invariably that of a drug user. The narrator’s tone in the short stories, whose themes range from crime to sex to rehabilitation, is world-weary; he can articulate but not feel. But that doesn’t prevent us from feeling.
In “Beverly Home,” the narrator spies on an Amish woman as she steps naked out of the shower into her bedroom, and develops a habit of watching her and her husband eat dinner. At one point he contemplates raping her, an action he thinks he might be capable of if he had a mask.
On the subject of his spying, he has this to say to the reader:

"How could I do it, how could a person go that low? And I understand your question, to which I reply, Are you kidding? That’s nothing. I’d been much lower than that. And I expected to see myself do worse."

The construction, “see myself,” is a grammatical clue to his way of experiencing the world: he renders scenes vividly as a participant, but with no moral apparatus or evaluation. Relationships to him are come and go, and his only consistent want is for the enablers of his numbness—the drugs that tinge his consciousness and gird the book.
In “Work,” he goes with a fellow barfly to an abandoned riverbank house to do a “salvage job”: ripping out the copper wiring to sell to get money for drinks.

"I went back to Wayne, standing in one of two small empty bedrooms, and started dancing around and pounding the walls, breaking through the Sheetrock and making a giant racket, until the hammer got stuck. Wayne ignored this misbehavior.
I was catching my breath.
I asked him, 'Who owned these houses, do you think?'
He stopped doing anything. 'This is my house.'
'It is?'
'It was.'”

They make $28 — each — and go back to the bar, where the narrator describes a bartender revered among the regulars.

"Nurse, I sobbed. She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of the cocktail glass, no measuring. 'You have a lovely pitching arm.' You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom."

He will never forget her.
“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.”
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