July 1, 1949-May 24, 2017
On December 29, 2016, I discovered an overwhelming, urgent, need to purchase Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. This often happens to me. I know the exact date, because I am still using the sales slip as a book mark. This urgent need (99% of the time I obey these epiphanic book desires) might have been because I had recently read Train Dreams (a brief review is here), or it might have just been one of those communications from the great Book World in the sky. I had read "Emergency" numerous times (in Alice La Plante's excellent The Making of a Story). And when I got home with Jesus' Son I did start reading. But at some point I put the book down and went about my life. But when I really, urgently, needed to read Jesus' Son, it was right there for me. Thank you, messages from the Book World in the sky.
Yesterday I sat down and read Jesus' Son straight through. Cover to cover. Each time I finished a story, I would stop and wonder what kind of ecstatic madman angel wrote these stories. Then I would look at the covers, front and back, and read all the words. The blurbs, the descriptions, they were just mortal faded words. I tried at the end of each story to come up with a sentence, or a phrase even, that might be adequate to express the sheer, pure, shining genius of these stories. Nope. Couldn't do it. Next to the incredible perfection of these stories, there was not a sentence or a phrase that didn't sound hollow.
That is the only word that approaches an adequate description of the book that has become synonymous with Denis Johnson's name. If you have ever, even once in your life, been ecstatically drunk or high, then you have some sense of the narrative structure of Jesus' Son. Each story is the fragmented yet unified dream vision of a narrator who has sunk so low it is hard to imagine anyone sinking lower and not being in hell.
Johnson neither deifies nor exaggerates nor demonizes his characters. And yet they see angels. The fact that the angels turn out to be the faces of actors on a drive-in movie screen does not in any way detract from the religious experience.
If I told you that this book is about junkies and drunks and people who do loathsome things, would that attract or repel you? Neither response is relevant, because Johnson is doing something outside those categories. Something like what Dostoyevsky or William Blake did--offer an ecstatic, visionary, light-filled and spiritual account of all that seems to be the lowest and least spiritual in humankind.
Now that I've read Jesus' Son (and I will be rereading this book over and over), I'll be starting Tree of Smoke today (yes, I got a message to buy that one too). The other book I've heard about again and again is Fiskadoro--that goes on the list.
Denis Johnson was a poet as well as a novelist and story writer. Here are some links to his poems:
Appreciations of Denis Johnson from: