Book Review Essay: Jesus’ Son

Jesus' SonJesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

“Jesus’ Son is a visionary chronicle of dreamers, addicts, and lost souls. These stories tell of spiraling grief and transcendence, of rock bottom and redemption, of getting lost and found and lost again. The raw beauty and careening energy of Denis Johnson’s prose has earned this book a place among the classics of twentieth-century American literature.”  -Back Cover Summary

Somewhere in the vicinity of 1997 I read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. It inspired or maybe coincided with a profound change in my understanding of God and the universe. My universe was swelling, bursting the seams of my Christian childhood, in part via Faulkner. I walked around in a muddled fog. Suddenly there were a lot of possibilities in the universe that hadn’t been available the month before. It’d been a long time coming, to be sure, but after all the strange people I was meeting, the unusual conversations I was having, there were the wildly disparate tellings of Faulkner’s story, knocking away anything still loosely held in my mind.

This is the way with Faulkner. There’s a bucking wildness that he can only weigh down with an intimidating density of language. In Absalom, Absalom, he describes Haiti as “a soil manured with black blood from two hundred years of oppression and exploitation until it sprang with an incredible paradox of peaceful greenery and crimson flowers and sugar cane.” When I read the book I could hear the voices of the oppressed calling.

From that place I wrote my own story, a mangled tale about a young woman’s decision to keep a child conceived in a rape. I worked hard to control the language, to wield it properly. And I successfully strangled the damn thing near to death. I showed it to people, and they were bored and annoyed.

Except for one part.

In my mind, the rapist existed in a red misty haze of fear and anger, and was so terrified by his attraction to the young woman, he needed to violently show some control over her. I couldn’t figure how to describe this with the same control that was unfortunately killing the rest of the story. So I bailed, and simply entered his mind and flushed it out onto the page. I considered it the weakest element of the story. For me, stream-of-conscious writing was borderless; it required no structure, no craft. It was an indulgent and easy way to mystify the reader, and pretend to be important.

And apparently it’s captivating. It was the only part of the story that everybody liked and made them ask for more. It reminds me of a quote about attraction from a celebrity socialite named Nicole Richie: “I like a man who looks like he smells bad, but doesn’t.”

It’s not until writing this response that I realize what a breakthrough that could have been. The best stories have a distinctive character, a specificity of perspective, a wildness at the core.

It took me ten more years to rediscover this. So here we are with Denis Johnson’s novel. A series of a young man’s fumbling attempts to marry addiction and an interesting life, Johnson’s novel is the same indulgent, culture-porn perspective of authors Hamsun and Miller and Bukowski. A blurry presentation of obviously real and experienced explicit details in a slightly fictional pretense, it’s a sprawling maze with no center. It’s undisciplined, confusing, lazy, and frustratingly lovely. His stories are the dangerous, useless, yet beguiling drug addict that the girl you love is into instead of you. You meet him and find yourself lending him money, too.

It’s undeniable. He dapples the deprivations of his characters with captivating descriptions of the universe like, “The sky was a bruised red shot with black, almost exactly the colors of a tattoo. Sunset had two minutes left to live” and “…under a sky as blue and brainless as the love of God….” He tosses around random character actions and words that are so overly real I am forcibly arrested, unable to move forward until I consider what just happened. “My wife was different than she used to be, and we had a six-month-old baby I was afraid of, a little son.” “There’s so much goop inside of us, man,” he said, “and it all wants to get out.”

This is the honesty of a recovering addict, of a man forced to accept who he is, warts and all, the man willing to gamble with an unknown drug, walk among the seedier sleeping lions of society, then shake off the shame and admit it all.

We want that fearlessness in our beds. We want that casual confidence close by, always with the edgy knowledge that though he acts tame, he will never stop being a wild animal, he will never be controlled by outside forces.

My point is this: if we are to make our fiction true and our poems hurt, we must awaken the wild creatures in ourselves. No amount of craft and precision creates the heat of real characters dying on pages, pages anyone else wants to read. If we want to seduce the world, we must begin as wild, honest, naked souls, and wear as little clothes as possible.

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Book Review Essay: Jesus’ Son

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