Title: Jesus’ Son
Rating: 5 Stars
I really do have a weakness for this type of collection of short stories. This is yet another set of sparely written vaguely interconnected stories about addicts and the hardscrabble life that they lead.
I’m sure that Raymond Carver is probably the godfather of this entire genre. I just learned that Denis Johnson spent some time as a student of Carver, so this might not be completely coincidental. One of my favorite authors is Donald Roy Pollock, who also inhabits this space.
The stories are told in the first person. It appears to be the same voice in all stories. It’s clearly a young man, addicted to drugs, who hangs out with other young men, all also so addicted. In one story a character dies and in a later story he’s alive, so the stories are not necessarily linear. He starts a narrative in one short story, and then several stories later, remembers that he never finished it, so picks up where he left off.
His stories about the grinding poverty and passive hopelessness and helplessness that the narrator lives in are made endurable by the beautiful style in which the stories are written and the gallows dark humor of his work.
One such story involves the narrator at a hospital whose best friend there is an orderly. They’re working the graveyard shift. Expecting nothing to happen, they both are extremely high on drugs (his friend is actively hallucinating). A person comes in with a knife in one eye. His other eye is a plastic eye. Even though he has a knife in his one good eye, he can still see, so does not seem overly concerned. His wife stabbed him, although he seems to acknowledge that he deserved it. He only wants the police called if he dies. The emergency room doctor decides to call in an expert eye doctor and a brain surgeon for this clearly delicate procedure. As part of their intense planning, they ask the stoned orderly to prep him. He does so and he comes out carrying the knife, much to everyone’s astonishment. And yes, the victim is fine. Later, when the victim tries to thank the orderly, the orderly no longer even recognizes him.
In another story, after the rare occasion of actually doing a hard day of work (albeit not completely legal), the narrator is feeling rich with twenty-eight dollars in his pocket. He goes to the local dive, The Vine, and his day gets even better when the bartender is a woman who consistently over pours the drinks, thus effectively doubling the amount of alcohol that he can buy. Not only does this qualify as a day of wonder in his life, but as the woman pours her drinks, her generosity spurs memories of his own mother. He sees the generous bartender as his primary source of nurturing.
By the end of the collection, the narrator is in recovery, has some menial job working at a adult living facility, has a girlfriend who has encephalitis, and consistently spends his evenings covertly peeping in on a Mennonite couple. In Johnson’s world, this counts as positive progress.
It’s a slight collection of stories (eleven stories spread out over 130 pages), but each story is strong. The stories are stripped down to their bare essence.
Nothing is wasted and nothing is missing.