Reading List #4 — Jesus’ Son

If you’re confused that this is #4 and not #3, good on you for paying attention. I have #3 drafted, but I never seem to have the book around to grab quotes out of, so it will sit there for at least another day until I can stop being lazy and find the book. (I know where it is. It’s on the kitchen table. But, again, LAZY, and usually I’m entrenched in blankets and kitties while writing these, so I don’t want to get up.)

Ahem. Anyway.

This weekend I read Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, and it was all kinds of fucked up. In a good way, mostly, but holy cow. I described it to someone as a prolonged opium trip, and that is a completely serious review. And before we go any further, I should probably preface this post by saying that I will be quoting some disturbing stuff, so if you don’t like reading about blood and tragedy, be aware.

This is a novel in stories, each its own beast but coming together as a whole and painting a picture of a dreary 1950’s or 1960’s town (the location of which I could never quite pin down). It revolves around a narrator who is, more often than not, partaking of some sort of drug, be it opium, pills, hashish — you name it, this guy does it, and manages not to die quite a few times. And by “manages not to die,” I mean exactly that: he finds himself in numerous situations where, as fucked up as he is, he still manages to come out of it alive, such as the car crash in the first story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.”

Speaking of that first story, one of the things that I love about this book is the descriptions and use of language. For instance, in “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” there is (gasp) a car crash, and a man is killed. The descriptions of what the man looks like on the road are raw and unfiltered:

The man hanging out of the wrecked car was still alive as I passed, and I stopped, grown a little more used to the idea now of how really badly broken he was, and made sure there was nothing I could do. He was snoring loudly and rudely. His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn’t be taking many 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.

I’ve read this story four or five times and I still got shivers just typing that paragraph. The thought that the “great pity” was that the dying man couldn’t tell the narrator what he dreamed gives me the heebie-jeebies (a very technical term). And then it gets better. (Er . . . worse?) The man has died, and the narrator is at the hospital when the man’s wife learns of her husband’s death.

Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.

Again, the shivers. I can feel, hear that woman grieving — she shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. What a wonderful way to describe such a terrible thing.

The thing I appreciate the most about this book is the way in which Johnson uses language to his advantage in the best way possible. As previously mentioned, the narrator takes a lot of drugs. And the narration . . . sometimes makes no sense. In a meaningful way, with the sentence structure and language, Johnson somehow emulates what the narrator must feel. It doesn’t make sense because the narrator is the one telling the story — and the world doesn’t make sense to him in this state. At times it seems somewhat stream-of-consciousness-y (another technical term).

How does reading this affect my current project?

The absolute mastery that Johnson has over the language and line-by-line prose in this book is something I wish I could fathom. The best I can do is work hard at it and hope that my prose turns out half as clean as his. I also loved his beautiful imagery — it wasn’t bogged down by unnecessary words. This applies not just to my current project, but to my growth as a writer in general.

We’re discussing Jesus’ Son in my grad class today, so I may have more to add later this evening.

Next: I just bought The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick after reading the sample on Kindle. I’m super pumped about this one. More to come!

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