Denis Johnson’s ‘Jesus’ Son’ is a harrowing testimony to being human

Book spine of "Jesus' Son" Photo by Niamh Brennan

Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son” released in 1992, is a harrowing collection of eleven short stories linked by a disagreeable main character only ever referred to as “F**khead”. The short stories slowly intertwine, revealing the horrors of substance abuse and addiction.

“Jesus’ Son” unveils the mundanity in the extreme through an addled main character that reflects on his life of unhealthy choices and corruption. However, Johnson introduces this character in a way that forces the reader to be granted his bleak redemption. He is by no means a hero, but he is just as human as we are.

The novel starts with a story called “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”. The drug-addicted narrator recounts his time hitchhiking within four different cars, eventually suffering through a fatal car wreck that kills both drivers involved. At the end of the story, the main character, seemingly in detox, recounts this event along with his drug addiction and overall disconnectedness from reality.

Although the main character is initially hard to like, readers can’t help but find bits of themselves scattered within his stories. The vulnerability in which Johnson portrays this character creates a raw experience for those who read it. Johnson’s writing is beautifully illustrated with his poetry,  yet still bludgeons readers with the harsh reality of the world around them.

In the third story of the novel called “Out on Bail”, the main character meets an old acquaintance named Jack Hotel. Hotel is a well-kept and well-known man who keeps his addiction a secret in order to maintain his image. Hotel later overdoses and dies, and the main character ends the story by reflecting: “I am still alive”, showing both his gratitude and shock that he has surpassed his friend in life and continued to live despite his addiction.

Johnson reveals the tender humanity of his protagonist within the final story, “Beverly Home”, writing; “All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”

Johnson’s constant use of the word “us” is vital to his writing. By consistently including the reader within his main character’s psyche he nearly forces the reader to view themselves within the story — acknowledging that not all main characters are heroes and some aren’t even likable. But he is not too far off from “us” Johnson writes; “He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.”

Johnson’s writing is a messy yet beautiful depiction of the human kind. He details the almost grotesque moments, laced with insightful and thought provoking ponderings that give  readers both whiplash and something to think about.

In the fall semester of 2015, Denis Johnson visited Boise State as a visiting distinguished writer. There he worked closely with Boise State writers and left them all with a copy of  “Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style”. Each copy inscribed with a quote by Isaac Babel, “No iron can enter the human heart like a period placed at just the right moment.”

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