Review: Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

I remember the first time I heard the name “Denis Johnson”. It was back in Michigan, in one of my English classes, and for some reason the weight of that name triggered me to look it up. Now that I’ve read his iconic collection of short stories, I get why the name had such an effect on me.

You don’t hear the name Denis Johnson in many British (and I guess Maltese) literary circles, but Johnson is an American Contemporary that people need to know about.

For those who know my writing style and my thesis work, Ernest Hemingway is the writer I hold close to heart. He is considered the father of minimalism. Ezra Pound, Hemingway’s mentor, once told him in a letter: less is more. And that mantra is one keep note in my own writing.

And as I was reading Jesus’ Son, Johnson’s collection of short stories, I couldn’t help but sense Hemingway’s influence on Johnson. Johnson found a way to show readers the harsh reality of alcoholics and drug addicts through the simple use of verse.

Some might think that Johnson was simply normalizing the life of alcoholics and drug addicts which may make it sound insensitive, but the normalization is what puts these people right up there in the spotlight. Johnson is giving these people a platform – they are no longer neglected. And Johnson does that in their own voice – the voice of hopeless people looking for redemption. People who are drifting and know they should better themselves but they just can’t. They are the lost sheep who know they need salvation. They’re the junkies that society avoids and doesn’t want to talk about. Johnson doesn’t want to talk about them though, he wants to show his readers that these people exist too. And there’s something painfully beautiful in the way he does that.

You can sense the minimalism in Jesus’ Son simply because Johnson doesn’t tell you what he wants to show you – he just shows it to you. As a reader, it can get confusing. The narration is disjointed and twisted. It jumps from one story to another, sometimes within the same story. We only get glimpses of a larger whole. Johnson has no intention of spoon-feeding the reader – he wants the reader to step into the shoes of these junkies and see the world through their lens. It is simple and really honest. Johnson knows that there’s no need for description when the reading of the text is the experience – and we’re experiencing what the alcoholics and drug addicts experience daily.

What I found profoundly gripping was the religious undertone. Throughout my reading of Jesus’ Son, I was keenly looking out for the images. I mean, a title like that hits you. Who is Jesus’ son? The persona of the text is a drifter, a junkie, who’s life could be considered a sacrifice. His suffering is sacrifice. You’d think that addiction and religion are two things that shouldn’t be put together but Johnson manages to find the link. When you fall prey to something and can’t get out, isn’t being stuck a sacrifice to yourself? You end up with no choice. These people do horrible things like shootings, stealing, rape, violence, even squishing bunnies by accident, and are put in the shit situations sometimes when it’s not their fault, because that’s what addiction leads you to.

It’s interesting to compare the first story to the last one in the collection. In the first story, the persona is hitch-hiking along the Interstate in the pouring rain when a family stops to give him a lift; only leading to a bad car accident. The persona is an addict and as he’s looking at the car crash, he directly tells the reader: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” He’s the one who needs help. Psychologically, this person doesn’t know how to fully function and we see that all throughout the text.

The last story is the longest, and although the persona is still troubled, the reader can sense a bit of hope in him. Every day, he’s taken of the habit of peering through the window of a hardcore Catholic couple which sounds creepy, I know, but you can tell that he wants the warmth of a woman, a household, and love. And in-between scenes, the persona describes a woman he used to date and the comparison is really there. He didn’t care for that woman and she didn’t care about him. Their relationship was stale. He wants what is behind the window, and window-watching in any literary text, means the metafictional – a vision outside of yourself, your life, or even the text, but is out of reach.

By the end of the last short story, the reader is surprised to see that the persona is getting better. He works at an elderly home and Johnson ends the story, and the collection, with a striking statement that I would consider the climax of the text. He says: “All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”

This text is written through the psycho-analytical lens of the addict. Us readers who are not addicts (hopefully) won’t always get what’s being shown to us. How can we? The experience is everything. But that’s the aim – to really see what the psychology of an addict is. These people are messed up, but they are worth saving too.

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