Arts

Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son

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I recently finished Denis Johnson’s collection of short stories called Jesus’ Son. The book follows a drug-addled character known as “Fuckhead” through several misadventures that are likely to produce a range of emotions from empathy to disgust, humor to anger. I met Denis Johnson back in June at the University of Tampa MFA summer residency where he appeared for a readings, question-and-answer, and had lunch with a small group of us star struck writing students. I seriously doubt he’d remember me, but I remember him as a polite and intense man with no time for bullshit. I liked him.

The overall effect of Jesus’ Son on me, once I got over being reminded that a layer of our society exists in a constant state of hopelessness fueled by a circular cycle of alcoholism, hard drugs, and bad decisions, was to ask myself what it is in human nature that nudges some of us toward self-destruction. I think these stories illustrate, like old-time fairy tales that teach children to obey their elders, what can happen when we value escapism more than establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships. To the question of how people can descend into a state that allows them to commit terrible acts without remorse, the stories in Jesus’ Son may provide some insight.
Denis Johnson may not have intended any sort of instruction when writing these stories, and perhaps they are as pointless as they seem, the ramblings of wasted losers clinging to the underbelly of society. I prefer to assign some sort of purpose to stories like these to counteract the realistic horror I find in them, and if readers are looking for a modern set of cautionary tales, Jesus’ Son fits the bill.