Her sofabed was two steps from the kitchen. We’d take those steps and lie down. Ghosts and sunshine hovered around us. Memories, loved ones, everyone was watching. She’d had one boyfriend who was killed by a train – stalled on the tracks and thinking he could get his motor firing before the engine caught him, but he was wrong. Another fell through a thousand evergreen boughs in the north Arizona mountains, a tree surgeon or someone along those lines, and crushed his head. Two died in the Marines, one in Vietnam and the other, a younger boy, in an unexplained one-car accident just after basic training. Two black men: one died of too many drugs and another was shanked in prison – that means stabbed with a weapon from the woodworking shop. Most of the people, by the time they were dead, had long since left her to travel down their lonely paths. People just like us, but unluckier. I was full of sweet pity for them as we lay in the sunny little room, sad that they would never live again, drunk with sadness, I couldn’t get enough of it.
There are a lot of people unluckier than the narrator, amusingly named Fuckhead, in the stories that form Denis Johnson debut collection, Jesus’ Son, a loose fractured narrative of a life fragmented by heavy drug abuse. They die in car crashes that he walks from unscathed, from being shot five times by a friend who’s high, in a tragic accident when a cry for help goes unnoticed, and from overdosing on the same junk that nearly kills him. Untimely unnatural death is a common truth for those that Johnson writes about, those lost on the edge of society, the loners, the losers, the drugged up dissatisfied, disenchanted, and disenfranchised; those too fucked to function.
Much has been made of Johnson’s propensity for the poetic by both writers and critics far better qualified to judge than myself. Very few writers have the ability to cut the reader to the quick in one sentence; Johnson does it every few pages. Lines like “And with every step my heart broke for the person I would never find, the person who’d love me” and “nothing I could think of, no matter how dramatic or completely horrible, ever made her repent or love me the way she had at first, before she really knew me” are utterly heartbreaking. Failed relationships loom large in the stories because as addicts the characters are unable to relate to others, and the memories of these women, girlfriends and wives, filter through as vague recollections, almost fever dreams. They litter the background as if they belong to other, much older lives like wrecks on some desert highway visible in the rear view mirror.
In the last story of the collection, Beverly Home, Fuckhead has a steady part time job, a stable relationship and attends group meetings regularly. Having achieved some semblance of normalcy, he finds himself stopping every time he heads home after work to spy on a young woman before her husband returns. He has no ethical qualms about what he is doing; he realizes it is wrong, but knows it is not the worst thing that he has even done, and in all likelihood will do something worse is the future too, but his voyeuristic tendency reveals an obsession for a love that is both pure and unattainable. He wants to catch them having sex, but what he actually witnesses is an argument that concludes with the husband washing the wife’s feet as a way of apology (the couple are Mennonites). The obvious Christ-like allusions of such an act of contrition serves to illustrate what is missing in the narrator, an also perhaps in a lot of us.
For Fuckhead, as for many people, the drugs offer an escape from the harsh reality of tour every day lives. Under the influence, he experiences miraculous things; a car crash in something akin to the way that Boethius’ God experiences time, simultaneously past, present, and future, a host of angels descending from on high, but these things are not real. All the problems in his life, the loneliness, the fights with loved ones, et cetera all remain despite the drug use, as the old adage that perception is reality isn’t true, reality is reality. The great tragedy is that Fuckhead’s problems will always be real, his dreamlike highs will always be unreal, and never the twain shall meet, but the distinction between the two will always be blurred, despite the distance being a gulf. The sorrow lies in that abyss in between, as Johnson himself puts it, as Fuckhead attends a dying man after the aforementioned car crash;
“His blood bubbled out his mouth with every breath. He wouldn’t be taking any more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.”