Before Denis Johnson became the Don DeLillo of the noughties (I’m thinking of his unfinishable fat novel Tree of Smoke), he was, apparently, a poet and a short story writer. This, his only short story collection, is unfathomably out of print in the UK.
Jesus’ Son (1992) has perhaps as much claim to be a novel as a collection of stories. The eleven short fictions here have unity of theme, setting and character (all have the same narrator). It also has a consistent sensibility: the telling is clear but confused, as befits a teller who is a recovering alcohol and heroin addict – though at times we’re not quite sure just how recovering he is. Although the narrative is fractured, or at least threateningly weakened in places – for example, a character who dies in one story is alive again in the next – our man is not a consciously unreliable narrator: he tries honestly to convey his impressions, but sometimes fails. This is beautifully displayed, and helps make the whole cohere, at one particular moment. The second story, ‘Two Men’, begins “I met the first man as I was going home from a dance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall.” The narrator proceeds to relate his story, and by the time he gets to the end, we have forgotten the title and the beginning. Later in the collection, the story ‘The Other Man’ begins, “But I never finished telling you about the two men.” This was not the moment when I decided that Jesus’ Son was a work of some brilliance, but it put the tin hat on the conviction.
The nameless narrator drifts as a way of life, “sick of myself and full of joy”, and although he may be off the smack and booze, he’s not averse to a little prescription enlightenment (“The travelling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened”). His hyperawareness makes everything vivid, the real things (like a car crash) and the unreal:
“Are you hearing unusual sounds or voices?” the doctor asked.
“Help us, oh God, it hurts,” the boxes of cotton screamed.
“Not exactly,” I said.
He seems to be drawn to hospitals, whether seeking help (“When I coughed I saw fireflies”), or further chemical stimulation, or work. In ‘Emergency’, the centrepiece of the book and perhaps the strongest story (you can listen to Tobias Wolff reading it here), he is working at the hospital with another muddling soul, Georgie, and they head off together on a road trip. It’s appalling and funny, always at the same time, and the sudden uncertainties (“Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed”) help bring the reader into the narrator’s addled consciousness. “That world! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?” The content, the plot, of the story is almost irrelevant; it’s a spillage of life on the page, seemingly random and shapeless but directed in a subtle and satisfying way. Which is not to say that Johnson is above more obvious pleasures:
“Are you still at all worried about Alsatia?”
“I was kissing her.”
“There’s no law against that,” Richard said.
“It’s not her lawyer I’m worried about.”
In these stories, the ordered and restrained lives of most of us are so far off the scale that they are invisible to the narrator. He may be having a terrible time where he is, but he is not especially interested in joining mainstream society. (“I didn’t want to go home. My wife was different than she used to be, and we had a six-month-old baby I was afraid of, a little son.”) He measures himself instead against those who are even worse than he is, such as the people in an institutional home whose deformities “made God look like a senseless maniac. […] You and I don’t know about these diseases until we get them, in which case we also will be put out of sight.” Or he likes to compare himself with Kid Williams, a former boxer.
He was in his fifties. He’d wasted his entire life. Such people were very dear to those of us who’d wasted only a few years. With Kid Williams sitting across from you it was nothing to contemplate going on like this for another month or two.
Going on is really what Jesus’ Son is about: going on whatever the future holds, even without a future, because the alternative is unfaceable. (Though here there is no explicit acknowledgement of that unnamable factor. He can go on because he does because he can.) Life is life; here the achievement is not staying on the level, but understanding your lot and living it. One man in the Beverly Home has a condition which renders him twisted, in “perpetual spasm”. “No more pretending for him! He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.” There is no self-pity or gloom here, however. “How could I do it,” he asks when spying on a woman through her window, “how could a person go that low? And I understand your question, to which I reply, Are you kidding? That’s nothing. I’d been much lower than that. And I expected to see myself do worse.” To which we reply: you will, sir, you will.
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A short story must be, by definition, short. That’s the trouble with short stories. That’s why they’re so difficult to write. How do you keep a narrative brief and still have it function as a story? Compared to writing novels, writing short fiction is mainly a question of knowing what to leave out. What you leave in must imply everything that’s missing.
If you’d like to learn how to do this, you’d be well advised to study Denis Johnson’s blisteringly acute “Car-Crash While Hitchhiking.” In this story—and indeed, in all of the stories in Johnson’s brilliant collection, Jesus’ Son—Johnson found a way to leave out the maximum in terms of plot, setting characterization, and authorial explanation while finding a voice that suggested all these things, a voice whose brokenness is the reason behind the narrative deprivation, and therefore a kind of explanation itself.
The first two paragraphs of the story divulge the entirety of its action: “A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping … A Cherokee filled with bourbon … A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student … And a family from Marshalltown who headonned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri … ” This appears to be a straightforward recounting of events except for that one word: forever. What “killed forever” means isn’t entirely clear. It’s a strange thing to say, as if it were possible for a person to be killed temporarily. Soon, other unusual statements appear. “The traveling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside of it I knew we’d have an accident in the storm.”
And then comes the kicker: “I didn’t care.”
We are, at this point, about twenty lines into the story, and the ground has fallen away beneath us. Who is this guy (identified, elsewhere in the collection, only as “Fuckhead”)? What has happened to get him in this altered state? Why is he capable of making vatic utterances about the weather and of registering the sweetness of human voices while not caring about their impending demise? No explanation is given. The story rolls on, rubbernecking its way through the car crash, the individual sentences veering from poetic reverie (“Under Midwestern clouds like great gray brains”) to detached commentary (“The interstate through western Missouri was, in that era, nothing more than a two-way road.”) The description of the accident is frightening in the extreme, and leads to a scene in a hospital, when the wife of the injured man learns of his death: “The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”
It’s impossible for the reader to know how to interpret this. Customary narrative procedure has disappeared and you realize that you’ve entered, or better, been sucked into, Fuckhead’s world. By removing any rational linkage from the story, by refusing to provide any form of accepted behavior on the part of the narrator, Johnson brings the reader to a place where these things are no longer operative, as they are, after all, in an addict’s twisted mind. The story hasn’t told you about an experience so much as made that experience your own. Which is as good a definition of fiction writing as I can think of.
Up to this point, however, as chilling as “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” is, it still isn’t a story. It doesn’t become a story until the last paragraph, where Johnson makes an amazing move. Mirroring the chronological liberties of the opening paragraph, he leaps forward: “Some years later, one time when I was admitted to the Detox at Seattle General Hospital, I took the same tack.” Fuckhead goes on to describe the voices that are speaking to him in the room, and the lush hallucinations that appear before his eyes, as a “beautiful nurse” gives him an injection.
By the end of the story, then, we glimpse the narrator’s eventual descent into drug-fueled insanity, and we get a clue to the reason he’s been able to write about these events with such clarity. The story is a description of “the pity of a person’s life on this earth” as well as a testimonial of redemption, without any sentimentality or even the prospect of permanence. That “one time when I was admitted to the Detox” suggests that it happened more than once. The narrator’s recovery, which allows him to relate these events, doesn’t absolve him of his heartlessness during them or bring the dead people back to life. That’s the meaning of “killed forever.” Sobriety and sanity, precious as they are, do not compensate for the tragic senselessness of life. Redemption is glorious and it isn’t nearly enough. It saves only one person at a time, and the world is full of people.
As if to emphasize this hard truth, the story concludes with a furious last line: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” Fuckhead isn’t Jesus. He’s Jesus’s son, which is a different thing entirely. He’s a person graced with an intuition of heaven who still lives in hell on earth.
All this Denis Johnson does in a little over a thousand words. By conflating registers of time and tone, he delivers a narrative where the personal brushes up against the eternal, all from a single incident, or accident, on a rainy night.
This essay appeared inObject Lessons: ‘The Paris Review’ Presents the Art of the Short Story.