- An Every Time Revelation
There's no other book of fiction I've reread as often as Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son (1992). I first read it as a graduate student in Brock Clarke's fiction workshop at Clemson University, too many years ago, and I still own that copy, the small black HarperPerennial 1993 paperback which has taken on almost totemic status. The margins are marked up with my continual amazement at how much beauty could exist within a book about terrible people doing terrible things, which was a revelation to me.
It's still a revelation, every time I read it. And there are many terrible things that happen in the book, linked stories narrated by a junkie given only the name "Fuckhead"—"It's a name that's going to stick," a character berates him—whose addiction has rewired those synapses that might've allowed him to live a functional life. Fuckhead hustles, steals welfare checks, strips copper wire from abandoned homes, and does far worse in search of a fix, and he surrounds himself with similarly lost and broken people, the kind who might seem like a brother one moment and beat you with a lead pipe the next. But the lurid or violent turns the book takes—we're witness to shootings, assaults, fatal overdoses, botched robberies, and more—aren't what I think of when I think of Jesus' Son. These aren't the moments I marked with astonishment, certainly, as there's nothing particularly surprising in watching bad people behave badly. That is, broadly, what we expect them to do.
What we don't expect—and shame on us—is for an addict to be capable of the insight, awareness, and even open sentiment we find at the beginning of "Two Men." Fuckhead describes a thwarted holdup that's left one of his false friends abandoned to face the consequences: "We bailed him out later, and still later all the charges against him were dropped, but we'd torn open our chests and shown our cowardly hearts, and you can never stay friends after something like that." Or the turnaround we get at the end of "Dundun," after Fuckhead spends paragraphs warning us of the title character's cruelty and violence, then begins the final paragraph by asking, "Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart?"
We don't expect an addict to document the world with the rich perception of a poet, yet every page has lines and images that startle: Midwestern clouds that hang in the sky "like great gray brains," or sheetrock that pries from a wall "with a noise like old men coughing." Nor do we expect a story collection to read with the force and arc of a novel, or for an author to write about the profane in such a way that the sacred never feels far away, but this is Johnson's accomplishment in Jesus' Son. It's a book I always read with a pen in hand, no matter how many times I've read it before because it always hits me with the same sense of wonder as the first.
Joseph Bates is the author of Tomorrowland: Stories. He teaches in the Creative Writing program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.