For class today, I had to read the short story collection, Jesus’ Son. I also had to write a little, 500 word review. Click below if interested…
“There is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportion.”
-Edgar Allan Poe, “Ligeia”
Poetry is condensing language and packing as much meaning per word as one can. So it came as no surprise to me to find that Denis Johnson was a poet before he was a novelist – his book Jesus’ Son reads with poetry and condensed language. In just 160 pages, Johnson packs a lot of meaning. It twists the reader through the jagged path of a nameless protagonist (“Fuckhead” is the closest we get to an appellation), with acid-burn eyes and perceptions laced with narcotic lenses.
I enjoy authors that write about the strange and the dark – but more to the point, it’s not so much the strange and dark I seek, but those storytellers who can find beauty there (I attribute this to a childhood of reading Edgar Allan Poe). The first chapter sets the tone and we hear the primal, eagle-shriek beauty, in the scream of a wife, in a hospital, who just lost her husband to a head-on collision and why the protagonist has searched for that feeling ever since. It’s easy to find beauty in a sunset or in a rose petal…but harder to find it in a black void, or to see that the petals are given beauty through a vicious context in thorns.
Though mostly told in the past tense, Johnson’s prose reads more immediate than a lot of present tense work I have read. It is ultra-present; and chronology collapses in on itself into one point, as we feel the drugs changing the feel of the interior of the protagonist’s veins, giving him the ability to know “every raindrop by its name.” As too this immediacy, in the first few paragraphs, Johnson writes:
“A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping . . . A Cherokee filled with bourbon . . . A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student . . .
“And a family from Mashalltown who head-onned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri . . .
“. . . I rose up sopping wet from sleeping under the pouring rain, and something less than conscious, thanks to the first three of the people I’ve already named—the salesman and the Indian and the student—all of whom had given me drugs.”
With that immediacy, we are carried through a series of short stories, connected by the protagonist, paying not even lip service to time or chronology. Maybe it’s a banal fall and maybe it’s a spiritual struggle and maybe it takes a reading or two to find out – but, in any case, Johnson traverses the ground of the story, with erratic grace and finds beauty in some frightening places. Nietzsche may have warned against looking into an abyss, but for those who can find out the beauty, even in the dark (and thus, can find it anywhere), have a gift indeed.