Jesus’ Son: Stories by Dennis Johnson

by Lily Wren

Jesus’ Son: Stories by Denis Johnson.
Contemporary Fiction.

Publication Date: December 1992

“When I’m rushing on my run. And I feel just like Jesus’ Son….” Lou Reed,  ‘Heroin’

I would be the first to admit that my guilty book reading interest (I won’t go as far to say ‘pleasure’) is that of the ‘addiction, drugs, alcohol, mental health and/or messed up state’ genre. I suppose it comes from life and work experiences. I’m a social worker by background and for as long as I remember I’ve worked or studied in health and social care. I’m interested in the personal story, the human condition and often fascinated in how addiction impacts upon someones life, on those around them and the psychology of addiction. I am certainly not talking about glorification. With this in mind it’s no surprise for me to say that I’ve read a number of fiction and non fiction in this area.

As is often the case, fiction seems to be more believable than non fiction and there is often an element of truth. I’m thinking The Drinker by Hans Fallada, Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton and of course Junky by William S Burroughs. Jesus’ Son almost makes it.

Jesus’ Son is a collection of 11 short stories all told from the experiences of the same person. It’s a very short book which can be read in one sitting. It can be confusing at times which is what I think it’s meant to do. It appears to be a well structured stream of consciousness (if that makes sense).

We don’t know the current age of the narrator, I’m not sure we even know the gender (assumed to be a man) and we are certainly not provided with reference to the time frame of when most of the stories happened. What we do know is that the narrator is a recovering addict although he does not explicitly inform us of this.

Each short story tells of a memorable occasion in his life be this an interesting person he met, where he was working or who he fell in love with. Maybe. In some stories the writing is vivid and graphic, although in the main it appears to tell of life which in reality is mundane and aimless. The physical act of drug use is mentioned fleetingly. The book mostly focuses upon the narrators actions whilst high, low and going through withdrawal from drugs and alcohol and it certainly provides us with the impression of the confusion and chaos in the mind of the narrator.

“We lay down on a stretch of dusty plywood in the back of the truck with the day light against our eyelids and the fragrance of alfalfa thickening on our tongues.

“I want to go to church” Georgie said.

“Let’s go to the county fair.”

“I’d like to worship. I would.”

“They have these injured hawks and eagles there. From the Humane Society” I said.

“I need a quiet chapel about now.” (p.63)

Jesus’ Son is a well written journal, quick to read and easy to confuse. I don’t understand why I remain unsure as to what I really think of the book. There is a lot of hype which surrounds it and I always seem to be a little out of step in such cases. I would guess that my expectations for the book were out of step having read a number of different books in this genre which left me feeling more fulfilled (for want of a better word). I’m left feeling that there are things I have missed and maybe I need to read the book again. Nonetheless, it’s very much subjective and I feel that Jesus’ Son remains a well thought out, well written chronicle.

What's funny about Jesus' Son is that I never even wrote that book, I just wrote it down. I would tell these stories and people would say, You should write these things down.  - Denis Johnson