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JESUS' SON by Denis Johnson



by Denis Johnson

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0-374-17892-5
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 Johnson (Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, 1991; Fiskadoro, 1985 etc.) brings together eleven down-and-out stories linked by their disagreeable narrator--a lowlife of mythic proportions who abuses drugs, booze, and people with reckless indifference. But this eventually recovering slacker reveals in these deceptively thin tales a psyche so tormented and complex that we allow him his bleak redemption. Gobbling whatever drugs he can, the nameless narrator witnesses a fatal car wreck while hitchhiking and experiences a strange euphoria. His highs can be sharp, edgy, and intense, resulting in casual violence and emotional disconnectedness (``Dundun''); or sluggish, as he threatens to nod out before our eyes. At a local gin mill (``Out on Bail'') with his fellow losers, he ponders arbitrary fate among those who fancy themselves ``tragic'' and ``helpless.'' After shooting heroin with his girlfriend at a Holiday Inn, he finds his ``mother'' in an angelic barmaid (``Work''). There's plenty of drug-induced surrealism as well: a stranger, feigning muteness, hitches a ride (``Two Men''); a man walks into an emergency room with a knife stuck in his eye (``Emergency''); and a cruising salesman from Ohio pretends to be a Polish immigrant (``The Other Man''). In ``Dirty Wedding,'' the same narrator proves his cowardice and contemptibility while waiting for his girlfriend at an abortion clinic. ``Steady Hands at Seattle General'' transcribes a loopy, poetic dialogue in a detox ward, where the narrator meets someone more jaded and bruised than himself. In recovery, he works part-time at a Phoenix home for the old and hopeless--some so deformed ``they made God look like a senseless maniac.'' While there, he dates a dwarf, takes his Antabuse, and begins peeping on a Mennonite couple who live by his bus stop. All this to remind us that God shows up in all the wrong places, and angels are everywhere. Blunt and gritty: Johnson's beautifully damned stories sing with divine poetry, all the while bludgeoning us with existential reality.