One of my favorite writers passed away on May 24, 2017 at age 67. I was re-reading his work and came across this review/appreciation that I had written a couple of years ago.
Denis Johnson writes with a unique, confident, and oddly compelling voice in a style that does not fit “normal” criteria for structure, characterization, or narrative plot. Yet, it doesn’t seem to matter.
The eleven linked stories in Jesus’ Son are all narrated by an unnamed protagonist, a young man who lives a grim life of addiction and alcoholism, but who is also somehow funny and likable (to the reader, anyway). He is the ultimate flawed character, and his only redeeming quality throughout these stories is that he knows he’s flawed. Sometimes he tries to remedy this; often he just doesn’t. The writing has a hallucinatory quality to it, a steady stream of the subconscious that is so dead-on and piercing in its observations of surroundings and of the people the protagonist bumps up against.
But, most of all, I think it is the language in these stories that makes them so compulsively readable. In his first story, of a horrific car crash, the protagonist is in the hospital when he hears a woman, the wife of a man who died in the accident, scream upon finding out. “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.”
Describing a partner in crime in the story “Two Men,” Johnson writes of him, “He was as bulky as an ape…and he dangled his hands as if he might suddenly go down and start walking on his knuckles.”
Some of his descriptions don’t even make sense, but you don’t care – they just seem right for the story. Later in “Two Men”: “The jolt of fear had burned all the red out of my blood,” and, “The green silence after a hailstorm…” Or, “When I coughed I saw fireflies,” and, “Under a sky as blue and brainless as the love of God…” These stories are full of this effortless prose, prose that is new and original and thrilling.
Poisoned relationships fill these stories. Men drink together in seedy bars, they overdose and die. They punch women, steal them from other men, and take them in for abortions. Johnson’s people are always broke, they drive (and often sleep in) “sorry-ass cars.” Bars are described in loving detail. One, called the Vine, is a “still and cold place” where a person could still find compassion, “Wayne was the only customer. His hands were shaking. He couldn’t life his glass. I put my left hand on Wayne’s shoulder, and with my right, opiated and steady, I brought his shot of bourbon to his lips.” And, “The Vine was like a railroad car that had somehow run itself off the tracks into a swamp of time where it awaited the blows of the wrecking ball.”
These stories take place in the bleakest parts of the Midwest, in Seattle, in Arizona. In the story “The Other Man” the protagonist is desperate for a drink. “I danced on my despair. I trembled outside a tavern called Kelly’s, nothing but a joint, its insides swimming in a cheesy light. Peeking inside I thought, If I have to go in there and drink with these old men.”
In the last story of the collection, “Beverly Home,” the protagonist, a recovering addict, manages to hold on to a job writing the newsletter for a hospital for the infirm and the aged. “Not all the people living at Beverly Home were old and helpless. Some were young but paralyzed. Some weren’t past middle age but were already demented. Others were fine, except that they couldn’t be allowed out on the street with their impossible deformities. They made God look like a senseless maniac.” One day, walking home, he hears a woman singing – the voice coming from the open window of a suburban house he is passing. “I thought I might be tall enough to peek inside her window, and it didn’t look like anybody would catch me at it.” He becomes obsessed with watching her, and often stops after work to watch her and listen as she showers. He wants to catch the woman and her husband. “I wanted to watch them fucking… The idea made me dizzy. I was sick of myself and full of joy.” At times during these stories, it was difficult to like this narrator, but the writing is so good, so different, you can’t turn away.
In the story “The Other Man” the narrator ends his quest for booze and sex with, “It was there. It was. The long walk down the hall. The door opening. The beautiful stranger. The torn moon mended. Our fingers touching away the tears. It was there.”
Flawed people, looking for love in all the wrong places. I only wish I could have written, “the torn moon mended, or “I danced on my despair.” I might stop writing after that, knowing I might not ever write something that perfect again.