What I Loved: Jesus' Son

A few years ago I was listening my way through the New Yorker fiction podcasts – a new discovery to me at the time – when I came across Denis Johnson’s short story, ‘Emergency’, read by Tobias Wolff (if this recommendation doesn’t spur you on to buy the book, at least go online and listen to Wolff’s wonderful reading of an American classic). I listened to the story twice. A couple of weeks later I bought Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, the collection in which the story appears. It’s only a slim volume and I read it cover to cover that same afternoon.

Afterwards I remember feeling kind of cheated, and not because I didn’t love the book. It was the opposite: I was annoyed that I had never heard of it before. It seemed to me a sort of bastard hybrid of my favourite American authors – Kerouac, Carver and Ford – with stories of hopeless drifters dabbling in drugs, guns and sex. Why had no one recommended this book to me when I was 16?

Jesus’ Son is a collection of 11 stories each told by the same narrator, known only as Fuckhead. They are sort of chronological: some of the stories recount brief incidents, others are more developed, but beyond this there is no discernible narrative thread. However, the book has often been justifiably described as a novel, largely because the stories are held so tightly together by Fuckhead’s distinctive voice, chiselled by many hard years living on the fringe of society as an alcoholic and a drug addict. Fuckhead tells dark tales about messed-up people. In ‘Dundun’, he goes out to Dundun’s farm to score some opium only to find that events have transpired against him. ‘McInnes isn’t feeling too good today,’ Dundun greets Fuckhead. ‘I just shot him.’

This isn’t to say that all the stories are depressing or bleak; some are sort of uplifting, liberating even. Perhaps this is due to the beautiful simplicity of the writing, its strange elegance. Johnson is a master of rhythm – the stories are a delight to read out loud – and his comic timing is a thing of genius. This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

What I love most about it, though, is the way the narration so perfectly reflects the life of the narrator. Years of extreme drug abuse have taken their toll on Fuckhead. His ability to recall events is questionable, and he’s the first to own up to this, often throwing into doubt the veracity of his own stories. Fuckhead gets events mixed up or just plain wrong. The order in which things happen isn’t important to him, nor, for that matter, is it important whether something even happened at all. What’s important is the meaning behind an event: the death of a friend, his wife’s abortion, a man wandering into Emergency with a hunting knife sticking out of his eye.

Johnson has said that the events relayed in this collection have either happened to him or to someone he knows, and this authenticity is revealed by the absurdity of the stories’ turns. Johnson’s are bar-room stories. Crazy, only in real life kind of stories.

Joseph Rubbo is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

Jesus' Son

Jesus' Son

Denis Johnson

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