On Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son
Mike Birbiglia has a joke that goes, “Life is like a movie. The other day, a friend of mine from high school died. And I thought, ‘Well, I guess he wasn’t the protagonist.’”
Now, I don’t know if Mike Birbiglia has read Denis Johnson. Given the number of writers in the world, and given the number of readers reading what these writers write, my bet’s that he hasn’t. But I think he’d dig Denis Johnson, if he did. And I think Denis Johnson would laugh at Birbiglia’s jokes. And then weep. And then start laughing again, because he’s Denis Johnson, and he’s written about people who have laughed at worse.
I don’t think I have anything original to say about the linked stories of Jesus’ Son. All I know is that they do what all short stories should do. Which is to say: say something. Something that could not be said in a medium that is not a short story. He wanders—or, at least, writes about characters who wander—but always lands. He presents questions without answers, problems without solutions. Like Hemingway, he writes about the aimlessness of a generation. But Johnson’s kin are the direct descendants of Kerouac’s and Ginsberg’s Beats, not the Lost Generation of The Sun Also Rises. They cannot help but tweak and fuck and drink and otherwise hurtle toward some small, eternal, often sordid truth.
In the story “Out on Bail,” he recounts a conversation between Jesus’ Son’s narrator and a man named Jack Hotel, a drug addict (like most of Jesus’ Son’s cast), who later dies of an overdose. At the end, the narrator states, without sentiment or inflection, “I am still alive.” Not every story ends on such a powerful sentence, but the conclusion of each accomplishes the same effect, echoing back through the aimlessness and pain that’s built up to it, recasting it as the thesis it was. This is the power of all first person narrators, but particularly Johnson’s: to be able to say that they were there. That they saw, and they acted, and they survived. And that it meant something to them. It changed them, even if they’re not now able to say exactly how. It changed them, damn it, and now they are telling of it. And we, also alive, are there to listen.