It’s almost Christmas but despite the title of the book this column is recommending today, don’t expect your usual year-end cheer from this one. These loosely connected stories shadow the same troubled protagonist – and he’s one who belongs on the fringes of society, the one we love to overlook – a drifter, an addict, an eternal outsider.
Jesus’ Son, a short fiction anthology by Denis Johnson, was published in 1992 and takes its title from the song “Heroin” by the celebrated band Velvet Underground. The eleven stories in this collection about an unlikeable, unnamed young narrator, identified only as “Fuckhead”, follows his disreputable life of petty crimes and addiction in which we observe him regularly abusing hard drugs, alcohol, and the lives surrounding him with equal foolhardiness.
And yet Jesus walks in his world, in the dimly lit alleys and by the overflowing trash cans, inside the seedy bars and abortion clinics and the hospital corridors in which our lead sometimes finds himself working. It’ an unflinching, phantasmagorical, and beautifully damned vision of America that’s presented in sharp, occasionally hilarious, and disjointed segments by Johnson.
Death and destruction are never too far from the characters inhabiting Johnson’s world but sentences such as – “We lived in a tiny, dirty apartment. When I realized how long I’d been out and how close I’d come to leaving it forever, our little home seemed to glitter like cheap jewelry.” – offering broken embraces and slivers of hope shine and make rehabilitation and recovery a possibility within attainable reach.
The fragmented nature of the stories works so well in this collection because these are tales about junkies and degenerates – whose minds, operating between memory lapses, confusions, and blackouts, we can only explore through episodic visits such as these. Rudyard Kipling had famously written “God could not be everywhere, and therefore he made mothers.” While Johnson says that god, if you choose to not define their existence within the parameter of your own limited life experiences, resides everywhere – even among the motherless, homeless, and hopeless. And there’s no bigger Christmas miracle than that!