I read Jesus’ Son last month while sitting on a train from Liverpool to Manchester. My friend, James Rice, had bought it for me for my birthday, as he’d mentioned it when we were in university. It’s a collection of 11 short stories, which all are quite short and which touch upon drug addiction, alcoholism and crime in rural America. He told me I’d really like the story Work. I did. I read it on the train. And I thought it was brilliant. Jesus’ Son has been described as one of the best short story collections of the last 25 years.
Denis Johnson was born in 1949 in Munich. His father worked as a liaison between the CISA and the CIA, which meant he moved around a lot and eventually studied English at the University of Iowa. During this time he took classes from Raymond Carver, who subsequently influenced Johnson in his minimalist style with dirty realism.
Whenever I think of Carver I think of his collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. You get this similar voice in all of the stories as him, the writer, talking to us and telling us, very revealingly, the essence of his existence. I love the story Gazebo in Carver’s collection. A husband and wife, Holly and Duane, discuss the breakdown of their marriage after Duane had an affair. And there is a sadness almost physical as Duane stands there hopelessly thinking of his ruined marriage and the future he now cannot have. And he brought it on himself. I don’t find this to act as self-pity, merely an example of the pain of emotion and the idiocy of humanity.
Johnson’s Work tells the story of two men, the narrator and Wayne who are drunk and unemployed and on their way to an abandoned house to steal copper wire and sell it for scrap. There is a pathos for these two men whose respective lives had, in some way, fallen apart, whether it was their fault or not. There is an unusual scene were they see a woman attached to a kite, which was attached to a boat speeding along the river. Not longer after, Wayne seems concerned about something and they drive to another house and a woman (the woman who was on the kite) is there who seems defensive and off-put. The narrator leaves them to talk and he watches them silently. When he’s finished talking, Wayne wants to leave. He’s even ‘hugging himself’ like a child. Wayne seems the more pathetic out of the two. He’s the one who can hardly drink his whisky with his hands shaking. The woman was his wife. Not even an ex-wife. ‘“That’s my wife,” he told me, as if it wasn’t obvious.’
What makes these powerful demonstrations of the short story is the size. They’re all very short. Work is only 9 pages long. It conciseness lets to the vignette style of a structured scene in a play, which allows these stories to portray a kind of drama, as if showing it’s fiction, it’s fun, it’s playfulness. But, at the same time, hiding in plain sight the pain and suffering emotions the narrator is going through, which we, ourselves go through in the turn of the millennium terror.
The narrators as characters are men here. Johnson, a man, writing on his own experiences. But Carver’s are men. Bukowski’s, a similar writer, are men. What interests me is the weakness of these men. Traditionally, men made to be physically and mentally strong beings. These stories demonstrate the the futility and weakened mentality of men. Women are the stronger characters in the stories of these authors. I read Ask the Dust by John Fante, who later influenced Bukowski. Ask the Dust, another book given to me by my friend James Rice, is about a struggling writer, Arturo Bandini in downtown Los Angeles and his troubled, destructive relationship with the waitress, Camila Lopez. Camila is unstable and at one point is admitted into a mental hospital. She’s in love with her co-worker, Sam, not Arturo. Both Sam and Arturo mistreat her in some way. What I like about Camila is when she goes missing. It seems she does this for herself. It’s not her fault she’s unstable, but it’s also not her fault the men in her life mistreat her. I think this gives her strength over the two men in this book. The fact that she eventually refuses to go to either of them, even if she gets lost in the California desert, she has ultimately refused to give in to their abuse and controlling agendas.
If we look at Johnson’s Work again, who’s the woman in the narrator’s life? What I find fascinating is that it’s his mother. The story itself ends on the word ‘mother.’ We see now the reason for his pathetic, alcoholic life. He never knew his mother and there’s never any mention of his father. It’s sad because his mother doesn’t recognise him in the story. Is she really his mother? Is she just some woman he’s fixated on? The fact that the story is called ‘Work’ means something too. It’s what we do to survive in the 20th/21st century, it’s traditionally what a man was supposed to do. But this woman, not recognising her own son, is working in a bar. Where work comes above her own son just shows the toil she’s been through as a hard-working, strong, independent woman who answers to no one. But the narrator is weak. He lives off his emotions. He drinks and works odd jobs and resorts to crime to afford more drinks. He’s unable to survive properly in this world and he doesn’t know if it’s his fault or not.
The book’s title, Jesus’ Son, comes from the Velvet Underground song, Heroin.
‘When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’ son
And I guess that I just don’t know
And I guess that I just don’t know’
Jesus’ son is also a myth, said to be written in the Lost Gospel which has been in the possession of the British Library since 1847. In it, it states that Jesus was married with two children and Mary Magdalene was the Virgin Mary. The idea of there being a son of Jesus is a symbol of power and status, yet at the same time, hopelessness and weakness. If your father was Jesus Christ, symbolically a pure and ideal human, holy and worshipped, what does that make you? You can’t achieve any more, you cannot be any greater. You are less than him and always will be. You can’t amount to anything in life. That’s what Jesus’ Son is. Not necessarily giving up hope in a hopeless world, but ultimately aware of the hopelessness that surrounds him.
In Johnson’s story Car Crash While Hitchhiking, there is a real sense of hopelessness. The drug-addicted narrator recounts hitchhiking in four different vehicles. First with a Cherokee, then a salesperson who shares alcohol and pills with the narrator, then a student, then a family. The family car crashes with another car, killing the driver, the woman. It’s interesting how Johnson wrote the woman to be killed, the mother and wife. The narrator’s sadness – and even hopefulness in rehab many years later – is recounting this story and how unfortunate it was. It wasn’t his fault. It was an accident. However, it lingers on the narrator’s mind for years and years, telling it as though it was he who killed the woman, Janice. Janice isn’t in the story for long, but she’s the driver. She’s the one in control and she’s the one who ultimately could have prevented it had she had the chance. No one in that car had more power in that moment than that woman, and yet she dies, and yet still, the narrator blames himself and grieves, almost as though his own mother had died.
It seems emotion runs thickly in a world were men aren’t supposed to feel emotion and women are much stronger than they’re made out to be. Where there is an almost innate psychological angst against the parents, there is also a childish need for them too when they no longer exist in adult life. Denis Johnson’s minimalist portrayals of middle America in seemingly pointless scenes expose the drama at the heart of humanity. It’s hard for us all and we all self-destruct, but it’s still necessary to understand where we are as people and how strong we are altogether.