Denis Johnson died on Wednesday. The other night, I picked up a copy of Jesus’ Son and plowed through it before bed. I imagine a lot of other writers did the same this week. Some vague thoughts:
- I have a tiny pocket-sized version of the book I bought at City Lights a year or two ago. It’s like a little Gideon bible, which works well for this book. I have this one oddball shelf next to my bed that’s too short for anything but pocket books, and so it’s always sitting in there and I’ll always pick it up and read a page or two when I’m bored of everything else.
- I have another paperback of the book I bought in 2006. I’d never read it before, and John Sheppard urged me to, so I bought a copy and took it with me on a hot summer trip to Milwaukee, the first trip I took back there with my wife. Now, the eleven stories are twisted in my head with early memories of going to Wisconsin.
- The eleven stories are about a guy only referred to by his nickname, Fuckhead. He is the main character of the book, but he seems like the guy that would be dumb sidekick in a group of friends, the one who is always made fun of and exploited by the group, but who still tags along and takes the abuse for whatever reason. And you’d normally never see his inner story in a piece of fiction about the others in the group, the ones who would call him Fuckhead, but in this book, you do see how he’s battling his inner demons and how he’s abused himself as the world abuses him. And that’s always been a strong reverberation for me, not only because Johnson writes about the forgotten character like this, but because I am always the Fuckhead of any group.
- Johnson was a poet before he tackled prose, and it shows. This book is an almost perfect example of minimalism, in the efficiency of his writing. The 160-some pages of the volume seem short, but so much is packed within, so much emotion and depth.
- The one criticism I have of the book is that it’s so commonly aped by a school of writing, and nobody can get to this level of craftsmanship. It looks like it would be deceptively easy to brain-dump stories of addiction, abortion, vagrancy, and failure in a similar fashion. But Johnson’s work isn’t about any of that, as much as it is about humanity that happens to have those things happening.
- There are so many short bits in here that are stuck in my head, that pop up randomly. The guy in the bar who said he was Polish but he was really from Cleveland. The one-eyed guy who came to the ER with a knife stuck in the other eye. Stripping wiring from a vacant house, and the crowbar pried loose the drywall “with a noise like old men coughing.”
- There are bits that also remind me of things in my past, and the two get twisted together. I remember driving home late at night from a party in South Bend, and being the first to arrive at a car crash on highway 33. A guy had been asleep in the back seat, no shirt on, the middle of winter, and woke up on the side of the road. I gave him my leather jacket until the ambulance showed up to cut out the driver, listened to him ramble about how he didn’t know what happened. When I read the first story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” it reminds me of that strange episode, where the feelings from one and the facts to the other meld together.
- There’s also a run in the second half of the book that takes place in Seattle, in the dive bars of 1st Ave. He talks about crashing at the library, the long street going from Pill Hill and the hospitals, down the hill to the old joints in Pioneer Square. This is where I used to live, in First Hill, and all of his landmarks line up with my old memories.
- The connections between the eleven stories is random, dreamlike. No time is wasted interconnecting the prose in a linear fashion. The reader is left to reassemble the scenes into a narrative, and it gives it a fluidity most story collections would not have.
- I can sit down and read the 160 pages of Jesus’ Son in an evening before bed, but it will continue to haunt me for a week or two. I think that’s what makes it so perfect.
Lots of stuff about Denis Johnson on the web this weekend. Probably my favorite quote I ran across is how he would never read his reviews. He said, “A bad review is like one of those worms in the Amazon that swims up your penis. If you read it, you can’t get it out, somehow.” I need to keep that in mind.