Friday, October 19, 2012

Jesus' Son - Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson (1945-)

Jesus' Son is a collection of short stories, each focusing on the hallucinatory experiences of an unnamed protagonists living on the west coast in the 70's consumed by addiction, trying to describe the psychedelic dream world that oscillates between reality. Unlike most addiction memoirs I have read, there isn't a sense of trying to understand why or how he arrives at some of his low points, but rather each day of survival is somehow a surprising gift, which he does his best to describe judiciously.

In "Dirty Wedding" the protagonist describes bringing his girlfriend to an abortion clinic, on their way being sprinkled by holy water by the protesters which is unable to penetrate them. As he waits in the lobby he watches a video on vasectomies and tells the man sitting next to him this is the last time he's ever going to get a girl pregnant. When the nurse comes in to tell him the procedure is over and his girlfriend is fine, he asks if she is dead, telling the nurse he kind of wishes she was...someone else, an innocent bystander has been made to suffer for their mistakes. They can destroy their lives as much as they want, but the reality of destroying another's life is almost too much to bear. As he waits for her to recover he wanders around town looking for drugs, stopping at an old hotel turned drug den where black pimps in fur coats protect women that were "blank, shining areas with photographs of sad girls floating in them." 

"When we were arguing on my twenty-fourth birthday, she left the kitchen, came back with a pistol, and fired it at me five times from right across the table. But she missed. 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.

I know they argue about whether or not it's right, whether or not the baby is alive at this point or that point in its growth inside the womb. This wasn't about that. It wasn't about what the lawyers did. It wasn't about what the doctors did, it wasn't about what the woman did. It was about what the mother and father did together."

Throughout the narrative he is an accomplice in the murder of baby bunnies, robs houses of copper wiring, pays for pills the size of eggs comprised of unspecified substances, becomes a peeping tom on a Mennonite family and mixes reality with the lucidity of his dreams so that the two become indistinguishable as he teeters on the edge of his destruction.

At one point in his narrative about his scheduled peeping on the Mennonites, he realizes this is pretty debase even for a drug addicted morally ambivalent drifter, and asks himself "How could I do it, how could a person go that low? And I understand your question, to which I reply, Are you kidding? That's nothing. I'd been much lower than that. And I expected to see myself do worse."

In a way, the common theme among all these stories is the lack of shame he feels. Just like the crippled and debilitated, his life is a complete and objective wreck and he makes no excuses for it.  He eventually takes a part time job at a Home for the disabled, and there meets a young man crippled with multiple sclerosis, only 33 but already unable to talk, beyond clamping his lips repeatedly around his protruding tongue while groaning...

"No more pretending for him! He was a completely and openly mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other..."

As he begins a tentative road to recovery for perhaps the millionth time, he sits with his girlfriend and describes his new approach to life, trying to fit in at work, trying not to steal, trying to see each task through to completion. His goal is simply to try, not necessarily succeed and as he slowly gets better each day, although still ramped up on Antabuse, which apparently doesn't count he finds solace in the disabled home.

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

Part of his job is to simply walk through the hall and touch people... because ultimately surviving can be a lonely journey. When a muscular grey haired man routinely takes him by the shirt front and admonishes him for dreaming, the protagonist covers his fingers with his own. When a woman, debilitated by a muscular disease, who is perpetually falling out of her chair, cries "Lord! Lord" he walks by and runs his fingers through her hair. Although their souls are untethered as they wander in and out of reality, it is this moment of touch, like a universal truth or a panacea that they all crave, a reminder that no matter who you are, we are all the same. We are all lost human beings trying survive and clinging to the shards of humanity to remind us why we go on living.

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