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?
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.
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?