Brian Eno told the Los Angeles Times in 1982, “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground Record sold only 30,000 copies… I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” The same could be said of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a slim collection of short stories that had the same effect on hundreds, if not thousands, of burgeoning writers.
I encountered Jesus’ Son at twenty, on break from college and wandering around a massive old bookstore. I saw that cover in the remainders section, bought it for $4.98, and promptly left it in the bag on my floor, only to discover it again, a couple of weeks later. I read it on breaks from my landscaping job (filthy, mulch-stained fingerprints litter the pages) and would go back to whacking weeds and edging beds with Johnson’s electric language pinging in my brain. I marked lines and passages I loved at that time with a stubby green pencil engraved with the name of a golf course I’d never been to, and bite marks in the wood that weren’t from my teeth:
We whizzed along down through the skeleton remnants of Iowa. (“Dundun”)
The sound curlicued through the riverside saplings like a bee, and in a minute a flat-nosed sports boat cut up the middle of the river going thirty or forty, at least. (“Work”)
We lay down on a stretch of dusty plywood in the back of the truck with the daylight knocking against our eyelids and the fragrance of alfalfa thickening on our tongues. (“Emergency”)
The day was ending in a fiery and glorious way. (“Happy Hour”)
It’s not difficult to see what attracted me and countless others to Jesus’ Son—the kinetic energy of the language, the rolling rhythm, the shocking humor, the darkness punctured, on occasion, by light.
I went back to the bookstore and bought Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, the hazy story of a disc jockey who becomes a private detective, a narrative that feels every bit like a bender. The druggy stupor of Already Dead came next, then the nuclear wasteland of Fiskadoro, and then the summer ended, and I went back to school. I gave a copy of Jesus’ Son to a friend, and he turned in a workshop story halfway through the semester that was a pale version of “Work,” and I re-read my own stories to confirm my fear that I’d done the very same thing. There are worse people to mimic, of course, but I learned an important lesson about the power of influence.
Denis Johnson could do anything with words, from poetry (The Incognito Lounge is the place to begin) to plays to essays (his collection Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond is wonderful), but his fiction, for me, is where his fire burned brightest. While I enjoy the brilliance and shaggy lunacy of books like Tree of Smoke, as the words never—never—failed him, it’s the smaller, more concentrated books like Jesus’ Son, Angels, The Name of the World, and, especially, Train Dreams that I keep coming back to.
In those works in particular, Johnson wrote about the kind of people that few of us give any thought to, and he did so with such depth that it hurts me to read sometimes, an emotional soreness that comes from bearing witness to the way these characters are bludgeoned and beaten down simply by living. Their only recourse seems to be trying to get out of the way, which there are often unable to do. He reminds me in this way of Carson McCullers, another chronicler of what many would deem inconsequential lives. Train Dreams, published first in The Paris Review and then as a standalone novella, strips away the drugged fog of Jesus’ Son, the benumbed shock of The Name of the World, and instead tells the story of Robert Grainier straight, in all its dusty, broken glory. After a fire sweeps through the valley in which he lives with his family, and having received no word from them, Grainier returns:
As soon as he entered the remains, he felt his heart’s sorrow blackened and purified, as if it were an actual lump of matter from which all the hopeful, crazy thinking was burning away.
It’s this specificity, the gut punch of it all, that Johnson inhabited so fully. It’s the same gut punch I felt when I learned of Denis Johnson’s death, at 67, from liver cancer.
Johnson took the title of Jesus’ Son from The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” and the song contains the same arc as a Johnson story, the character numbed as much by the state of the world as the drug itself. But in the third verse, he dreams of something else:
I wish that I was born a thousand years ago/ I wish that I’d sailed the darkened seas/ On a great big clipper ship/ Going from this land here to that/ In a sailor’s suit and cap.
Of course the world returns, and the dreams are just that. But that moment, that brief escape into something/ someone/ someplace else, leaves an imprint. Though Johnson depicted the totality of those events, it’s these moments of elsewhere, the power of hope when surrounded by so much darkness, that we need to hold on to and cherish.