19 August 2008

Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson

My friend Jonathan recommended this to me. I picked it up thinking maybe I'd read the first story or two, and an hour and a half later I was reading the final page with a sigh of content. It's a snappy read and wholly entrancing. 

As one of the reviews quoted in the early pages of the book says, there's an "apparent carelessness" to these stories, a kind of distracted quality that is beautifully complimented by what another review describes as its "almost religious intensity".  The stories have a way of describing the feelings and foibles of humanity in darkly metaphysical terms. One wants to call it noir, but that's not entirely accurate. The events described seem bizarre and surreal but also, somehow, profoundly true, as though Johnson were distilling the human essence from them. For instance:

It wasn't my life she was after. It was more. She wanted to eat my heart and be lost in the desert with what she'd done, she wanted to fall on her knees and give birth from it, she wanted to hurt me as only a child can be hurt by its mother. (102)

The plot of the stories is a series of linked episodes about the adventures of an alcoholic heroin addict, but that's almost beside the point. I mean, the fact that he's a junkie isn't THAT important or remarkable, or at least it didn't seem so to me, but maybe I was just too distracted by the incredible prose to care. For me, it was about the situations the book set up, and the surprisingly evocative quality of the descriptions. The people encountered were fantastically rendered, often largely through dialogue, and not much of it at that. 

Really, a surprising and often brilliant book. Quite recommended. 

No comments: