In Jesus’ Son, his first collection of stories, Denis Johnson records how far a soul can run from God and still be hounded by Jesus. His unnamed narrator wanders purposeless and with little past, bent on burning out his self-awareness through drugs and alcohol. Yet he cannot escape being human — human with a religious subconscious that makes his life hell.
Johnson came to short stories after finishing two poetry collections and four novels: Angels, Fiskadoro, The Stars at Noon, and last year’s Resuscitation of a Hanged Man. His current book draws its inspiration from Lou Reed’s “Heroin”: “When I’m rushing on my run / And I feel just like Jesus’ son…” Elsewhere in the song, Reed sings, “Thank God that I’m not aware / Thank God that I just don’t care…. I want to try for the Kingdom if I can / Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man.” Johnson’s narrator is a failure as a man, but his stories are funny and spellbinding, full of surprises.
At the end of “Two Men,” the narrator pushes a woman’s face into a rug, presses a gun against her temple, and says, “I don’t care. You’re going to be sorry.” The line reveals much. Ostensibly the narrator doesn’t care that the man he seeks (the woman’s lover) has fled, but he is also going to make the woman sorry because he doesn’t care, has lost his ability to care.
In an earlier scene, his fear of a man who may be seeking revenge on him takes on religious dimensions:
“What is it?” Richard said as I got in.
Headlights came around the corner. A spasm ran through me so hard it shook the car.
“Jesus,” I said. The interior filled up with light so that for two seconds you could have read a book.
A few lines later Richard says,
“Maybe he forgives you.”
“Oh God, if he does, then we’re comrades and so on, forever . . . All I’m asking is just punish me and get it over with.”
A similar, oft-quoted scene occurs in “Emergency” (honored along with “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” in The Best American Short Stories): the narrator expects nothing less than the Second Coming.
One of the book’s unusual achievements is to subvert the convention that the main character initiates action leading to change. These stories are about passivity, the inability to change. Yet the narrator is likeable because, for all his guilt, he seems innocent in a childlike way. His humor is that of a boy who can’t be serious. We identify with him in his discomfort at being human; we pity him for the lengths he goes to shun it.
Drugs and Jesus dominate these stories, drugs directly, Jesus indirectly. In “Happy Hour,” Jesus is drugs. The narrator buys a huge hallucinogen that he thinks must be for horses. He insists nobody could swallow it, but he does. “Look at it! It’s like an egg. It’s like an Easter thing.” His bestial descent is equated with Christ’s resurrection. By “Beverly Home,” the last story, our hero has achieved a kind of peace. As an orderly at a hospital for the aged, he is paid to touch people. A woman in a wheelchair screams “Lord? Lord?” and he puts his hands in her hair. He is Jesus. He has redeemed himself.
This review appeared in the Spring issue of the Harvard Review in 1993