Barry Hannah on Denis Johnson’s Book Jesus’ Son

Certain books, the ones I’m always looking for and hardly ever finding—true codes of entry into other hard spiritualities—you have to read while you’re walking, say, even through a crowded airport. Such was Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Those of us who’ve come out of the serious dope-and-drink world may have forgotten the strange poetry and curious religious cast of events, but Johnson hasn’t. It takes an authentic poet to catch the strange, tragic hope and cheer as well as the squalor of that life, and Johnson surely is one.

Barry Hannah on Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son; from the January, 1994 issue of SPIN.

 

About these ads

Venus Drive — Sam Lipsyte

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review last year; we run it again in the spirit of Sam Lipsyte Week].

The thirteen stories in Venus Drive compose a sort of novel-in-stories. The title of the collection takes its name from a banal suburban street mentioned in a few of the stories, and many of the characters seem like iterations of the same type or voice. There are washed up would-be indie rock stars, small-time coke peddlers, and underemployed and overeducated addicts. There are deviants and perverts and outsiders. There are bullies. There are dead or dying mothers, dead or dying sisters. In short, Venus Drive is its own tightly-drawn, tightly-coiled, and highly-compressed world.

As the plot points double and re-double in these stories, so do the themes. “Our culture is afraid of death, and considers it something we must wage battle against,” says Tessa, a pain specialist, a peripheral character in “Cremains.” She continues: “I say, surrender, submit. Go gentle. Terminal means terminal.” Death informs almost all of these stories in some way, and Tessa’s commentary presents the problem with death, or at least the problem these characters have with dealing with death: it’s not easy to go gentle. It goes against our culture and our nature to surrender. If she’s presented as a voice of wisdom, she’s also an ironic character, one of the many would-be authorities Lipsyte’s weirdos and outsiders can’t help but mock. “The Drury Girl,” part-suburban satire and pure pathos, posits a pre-pubescent narrator obsessed with his teenage babysitter; his dad’s cancer plays second fiddle to his lust. Thus the story neatly ties together the overarching themes of Venus Drive, sex and death. Admittedly, these are probably the only real themes of proper literature, but Lipsyte does it so damn well and lays it all out so bare and does so in such humor and grace that it really sticks. It’s good stuff.

That humor is desert-dry, of course, and succeeds so well because his characters are so endearing in their pathetic pathologies. The antiheroes of “Beautiful Game” and “My Life, for Promotional Use Only,” are also-rans in the sordid history of underground rock, addicts approaching washed-up (Are they the same person? Maybe. They have different names, of course. Doesn’t matter). A scene from “Beautiful Game” shows the ambivalence at the core of many of these characters: “At the bank machine, Gary doesn’t check the balance. Better to leave it to the gods. Someday the bank machine will shun him. Why know when?” Gene, the ex-rocker in “My Life, for Promotional Use Only” now suffers the indignities of working for his ex-girlfriend. Everyone in the story is an ex-something, everyone is growing up and leaving art (or is it “Art”?) behind. In a poignant and funny and cruel scene, familiar to many of us, Gene sees some of himself in a waitress:

Rosalie calls over the waitress and they talk for a while about somebody’s new art gallery. The waitress is famous for a piece where she served the Bloody Marys mixed with her menstrual blood. Word had it she overdid the tabasco.

I wait for the moment when our waitress stops being a notorious transgressor of social mores and becomes a waitress again, look for it in her eyes, that sad blink, and order a beer.

Gene, a former “notorious transgressor of social mores” himself feels both sorrow and hate for the waitress. He sees her job as menial and pathetic — just like his own. He doesn’t seem to think much of her art, either. Lipsyte telegraphs so much there with so few words, his sentences clean, spare, precise, and rarely of the compound variety. There’s a truncated, clipped rhythm that Lipsyte builds over the thirteen-story run that helps propel the immediacy of his tales. The stories are short, too; the longest is sixteen pages and most run to eight or ten. Lipsyte’s rhetorical gift is to shine the grubby and, at times, his sentences can feel almost too perfect, too-fussed over–but this (minor) complaint, it must be noted, comes from someone who admires occasional ambiguity or incoherence. Lipsyte removes his own authorial voice and thus achieves lucidity in his characters’ voices; somehow, though — and paradoxically — these voices bear the ghostly trace of his absence. But that seems like a silly conversation, and certainly not one for this post.

Venus Drive reminds me very much of one of my favorite books, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which I would also call a novel-in-stories, also a spare and precise collection, also a study of weirdos and addicts and outsiders. Jesus’ Son is something of a standard in creative writing workshops (or at least it used to be) and a sensible teacher would add Venus Drive to her syllabus as well. Finally, like Jesus’ Son, Lipsyte’s book is seething, funny, and poignant, with characters tipped toward some redemption, awful or otherwise, for all their myriad sins. The book might take its name from a geographic location, but the “Venus drive” is also a spiritual inclination toward love and hope. Highly recommended.

Venus Drive is available in trade paperback from Picador.

Angels — Denis Johnson

Angels, Denis Johnson’s 1983 début novel, begins as a small book about not very much and ends as a small book about pretty much everything. Johnson has a keen eye and keener ear for the kinds of marginal characters many of us would rather overlook all together, people who live and sweat and suffer in the most wretched, unglamorous, and anti-heroic vistas of a decayed America. The great achievement of the novel (beyond Johnson’s artful sentences) is in staging redemption for a few–not all, but a few–of its hopeless anti-heroes.

Take Jamie, for instance. Angels opens on this unfortunate young woman as she’s hauling her two young children onto a Greyhound bus. She’s leaving her cheating husband for relatively unknown prospects, lugging her children around like literal and symbolic baggage. Jamie should be sympathetic, but somehow she’s not. She’s someone we’d probably rather not look at, yelling at her kids while she drags on a Kool. Even she knows it. Of two nuns on the bus: “But Jamie could sense that they found her make-up too thick, her pants too tight. They knew she was leaving her husband, and figured she’d turn for a living to whoring. She wanted to tell them what was what, but you can’t talk to a Catholic.” Jamie finds a closer companion, or at least someone equally bored and equally prone to drinking and substance abuse, in Bill Houston. The ex-con, ex-navy man is soon sharing discreet boilermakers with her on the back of the bus, and she makes the first of many bad decisions in deciding to shack up with him over the next few weeks in a series of grim motels.

The bus, the bus stations, the motels, the bars–Johnson details ugly, urgent gritty second-tier cities and crumbling metropolises at the end of the seventies. The effect is simply horrifying. This is a world that you don’t want to be in. Johnson’s evocation never veers into the grotesque, however; he never risks tipping into humor, hyperbole, or distance. The poetic realism of his Pittsburgh or his Chicago is virulent and awful, and as Jamie drunkenly and druggily lurches toward an early trauma, one finds oneself hoping that even if she has to fall, dear God, just let those kids be okay. It’s tempting to accuse Johnson of using the kids to manipulate his audience’s sympathy, but that’s not really the case. Sure, there’ s a manipulation, but it veers toward horror, not sympathy. (And anyway, all good writing manipulates its audience). Johnson’s milieu here is utterly infanticidal and Jamie is part and parcel of the environment: “Jamie could feel the muscles in her leg jerk, she wanted so badly to kick Miranda’s rear end and send her scooting under the wheels, of, for instance, a truck.”

Jamie is of course hardly cognizant of the fact that her treatment of her children is the psychological equivalent of kicking them under a truck. She’s a bad mother, but all of the people in this novel are bad; only some are worse–much worse–than others. Foolishly looking for Bill Houston on the streets of Chicago, she notices that “None of these people they were among now looked at all legitimate.” Jamie is soon conned, drugged, and gang-raped by a brother and his brother-in-law; the sister/wife part of that equation serves as babysitter during the horrific scene.

And oh, that scene. I put the book down. I put the book away. For two weeks. The scene is a red nightmare, the tipping point of Jamie’s sanity, and the founding trauma that the rest of the novel must answer to–a trauma that Bill Houston, specifically, must somehow pay for, redress, or otherwise atone. The rape and its immediate aftermath are hard to stomach, yet for Johnson it’s no mere prop or tasteless gimmick. Rather, the novel’s narrative thrust works to somehow answer to the rape’s existential cruelty, its base meanness, its utter inhumanity. Not that getting there is easy.

Angels shifts direction after the rape, retreating to sun-blazed Arizona, Bill Houston’s boyhood home and home to his mother and two brothers. There’s a shambling reunion, the book’s closest moment of levity, but it’s punctuated and punctured by Jamie’s creeping insanity, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Johnson’s signature humor is desert-dry and rarely shows up to relieve the narrative tension. Jamie hazily evaporates into the background of the book as the Houston brothers, along with a dude named Dwight Snow, plan a bank robbery. Another name for Angels might be Poor People Making Bad Decisions out of Sheer Desperation. Burris, the youngest Houston, has a heroin habit to feed. James Houston is just bored and nihilistic and seems unable to enjoy his wife and child and home. On hearing about the bank robbery plan, Jamie achieves a rare moment of insight: “Rather unexpectedly it occurred to her that her husband Curt, about whom she scarcely ever thought, had been a nice person. These people were not. She knew that she was in a lot of trouble: that whatever she did would be wrong.” And of course, Jamie’s right.

The bank robbery goes wrong–how could it not?–but to write more would risk spoiling much of the tension and pain at the end of Angels. Those who’ve read Jesus’ Son or Tree of Smoke will see the same concern here for redemption, the same struggle, the same suffering. While Jesusian narratives abound in our culture, Johnson is the rare writer who can make his characters’ sacrifices count. These are people. These are humans. And their ugly little misbegotten world is hardly the sort of thing you want to stumble into, let alone engage in, let alone be affected by, let alone be moved by. But Johnson’s characters earn these myriad affections, just as they earn their redemptions. Angels is clearly not for everyone, but fans of Raymond Carver and Russell Banks should make a spot for it on their reading lists (as well as Johnson fans like myself who haven’t gotten there yet). Highly recommended.

Venus Drive — Sam Lipsyte

Sam Lipsyte’s forthcoming novel The Ask is already poised to be one of the major critical successes of 2010. In concordance with its publication, Picador will print a new trade paperback edition of his short story collection Venus Drive, the first such publication since its original debut from Open City a decade ago.

The thirteen stories in Venus Drive compose a sort of novel-in-stories. The title of the collection takes its name from a banal suburban street mentioned in a few of the stories, and many of the characters seem like iterations of the same type or voice. There are washed up would-be indie rock stars, small-time coke peddlers, and underemployed and overeducated addicts. There are deviants and perverts and outsiders. There are bullies. There are dead or dying mothers, dead or dying sisters. In short, Venus Drive is its own tightly-drawn, tightly-coiled, and highly-compressed world.

As the plot points double and re-double in these stories, so do the themes. “Our culture is afraid of death, and considers it something we must wage battle against,” says Tessa, a pain specialist, a peripheral character in “Cremains.” She continues: “I say, surrender, submit. Go gentle. Terminal means terminal.” Death informs almost all of these stories in some way, and Tessa’s commentary presents the problem with death, or at least the problem these characters have with dealing with death: it’s not easy to go gentle. It goes against our culture and our nature to surrender. If she’s presented as a voice of wisdom, she’s also an ironic character, one of the many would-be authorities Lipsyte’s weirdos and outsiders can’t help but mock. “The Drury Girl,” part-suburban satire and pure pathos, posits a pre-pubescent narrator obsessed with his teenage babysitter; his dad’s cancer plays second fiddle to his lust. Thus the story neatly ties together the overarching themes of Venus Drive, sex and death. Admittedly, these are probably the only real themes of proper literature, but Lipsyte does it so damn well and lays it all out so bare and does so in such humor and grace that it really sticks. It’s good stuff.

That humor is desert-dry, of course, and succeeds so well because his characters are so endearing in their pathetic pathologies. The antiheroes of “Beautiful Game” and “My Life, for Promotional Use Only,” are also-rans in the sordid history of underground rock, addicts approaching washed-up (Are they the same person? Maybe. They have different names, of course. Doesn’t matter). A scene from “Beautiful Game” shows the ambivalence at the core of many of these characters: “At the bank machine, Gary doesn’t check the balance. Better to leave it to the gods. Someday the bank machine will shun him. Why know when?” Gene, the ex-rocker in “My Life, for Promotional Use Only” now suffers the indignities of working for his ex-girlfriend. Everyone in the story is an ex-something, everyone is growing up and leaving art (or is it “Art”?) behind. In a poignant and funny and cruel scene, familiar to many of us, Gene sees some of himself in a waitress:

Rosalie calls over the waitress and they talk for a while about somebody’s new art gallery. The waitress is famous for a piece where she served the Bloody Marys mixed with her menstrual blood. Word had it she overdid the tabasco.

I wait for the moment when our waitress stops being a notorious transgressor of social mores and becomes a waitress again, look for it in her eyes, that sad blink, and order a beer.

Gene, a former “notorious transgressor of social mores” himself feels both sorrow and hate for the waitress. He sees her job as menial and pathetic — just like his own. He doesn’t seem to think much of her art, either. Lipsyte telegraphs so much there with so few words, his sentences clean, spare, precise, and rarely of the compound variety. There’s a truncated, clipped rhythm that Lipsyte builds over the thirteen-story run that helps propel the immediacy of his tales. The stories are short, too; the longest is sixteen pages and most run to eight or ten. Lipsyte’s rhetorical gift is to shine the grubby and, at times, his sentences can feel almost too perfect, too-fussed over–but this (minor) complaint, it must be noted, comes from someone who admires occasional ambiguity or incoherence. Lipsyte removes his own authorial voice and thus achieves lucidity in his characters’ voices; somehow, though — and paradoxically — these voices bear the ghostly trace of his absence. But that seems like a silly conversation, and certainly not one for this post.

Venus Drive reminds me very much of one of my favorite books, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which I would also call a novel-in-stories, also a spare and precise collection, also a study of weirdos and addicts and outsiders. Jesus’ Son is something of a standard in creative writing workshops (or at least it used to be) and a sensible teacher would add Venus Drive to her syllabus as well. Finally, like Jesus’ Son, Lipsyte’s book is seething, funny, and poignant, with characters tipped toward some redemption, awful or otherwise, for all their myriad sins. The book might take its name from a geographic location, but the “Venus drive” is also a spiritual inclination toward love and hope. Highly recommended.

Venus Drive is available March 2nd, 2010 in trade paperback from Picador.

Essential Short Story Collections: Jesus’ Son

Welcome to a new feature at the Biblioklept, “Essential Short Story Collections,” in which we take a look at some, uh, short story collections that are essential (how’s that for a tautology?). Because we here at Biblioklept Headquarters USA always put Jesus first, and because his latest novel Tree of Smoke was so dang good, why not start with Denis Johnson’s 1992 collection Jesus’ Son?

jesusson.jpg

Jesus’ Son is almost a novel in short story form. The unnamed narrator of the stories is an alcoholic drug addict who manages to survive through a mix of petty thievery, odd odd jobs, and straight-up bumming it. The collection opens with “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” The title of this story is in no way misleading. And although the first story winds up with the narrator hospitalized and blacking out (initiating a motif in Jesus’ Son), the next story, “Two Men” finds him reasonably healthy and up to no good. “Two Men” is a meditation on the bonds of friendship and an outstanding example of Johnson’s tight prose:

I was being taken out of the dance by my two good friends. I had forgotten my friends had come with me, but there they were. Once again I hated the two of them. The three of us had formed a group based on something erroneous, some basic misunderstanding that hadn’t yet come to light, and so we kept on in one another’s company, going to bars and having conversations. Generally one of these false coalitions died after a day or a day and a half, but this one had lasted more than a year. Later on one of them got hurt when we were burglarizing a pharmacy, and the other two of us dropped him bleeding at the back entrance of the hospital and he was arrested and all the bonds were dissolved.

Friends! Good stuff. Other stand-outs in the collection include “Work,” a story about stealing copper wire, and “Emergency,” a tale involving copping pills from an emergency room job. Reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson, “Emergency” perfectly captures drug-addled paranoia overflowing into petty existential questing. An encounter with some normals:

A family in a big Dodge, the only car we’d seen in a long time, slowed down and gawked out the windows as they passed by. The father said, “What is it, a snake?”

“No, it’s not a snake,” Georgie said, It’s a rabbit with babies inside it.”

“Babies!” the mother said, and the father sped the car forward, over the protests of several little kids in the back.

Georgie came back to my side of the truck with his shirtfront stretched out in front of him as if he were carrying apples in it, or some such, but they were, in fact, slimy miniature bunnies. “No way I’m eating those things, ” I told him.

The last story in Jesus’ Son, “Beverly Home,” finds our narrator in a somewhat more stable position, working in a retirement home and attending NA and AA meetings. His one vice and indulgence is voyeurism; he takes to watching a Mennonite couple through their windows at night, progressing from deviant sex-obsession to pining for their mundane life:

I got so I enjoyed seeing them sitting in their living room talking, almost not talking at all, reading the Bible, saying grace, eating their supper in the kitchen alcove, as much as I liked watching her naked in the shower.

At the end of the book, moved by the strange spectacle of a man washing his wife’s feet, the narrator finds a kind of hope and redemption for the future:

All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.

200px-jesus_son_ver5.jpg

I mentioned above that Jesus’ Son can almost be read as a novel, but make no mistake–it is a collection of short stories, character sketches, vignettes that add up to something greater. The 2000 film adaptation of the movie makes this quite clear. Although the film, starring Billy Crudup as the unnamed narrator, is not half bad, the disconnected and fragmentary nature of the book–which reinforced the book’s themes of existential alienation and minor redemption–comes across as episodic and even whimsical in the movie.

I highly recommend Jesus’ Son, and I hope that people who “don’t have time to read” will make a little space in their day for this slim but substantial book. Most of the stories can be read in under half an hour, so why not pick up a copy?