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Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, December 28, 1992

People entering the bars on First Avenue gave up their bodies. Then only the demons inhabiting us could be seen. Souls who had wronged each other were brought together here. The rapist met his victim, the jilted child discovered its mother. But nothing could be healed, the mirror was a knife dividing everything from itself, tears of false fellowship dripped on the bar. And what are you going to do to me now? With what, exactly, would you expect to frighten me?

Reading Jesus’ Son, turning strung-out drifter in a dive bar affixed to a stool, what’ll-it-be? Door opens to the reminder of rain and in out of it stumbles somebody new, no doubt freshly baked and probably then some. Good bet you’re not the only one thinking it either. It strikes you as odd how he doesn’t waste any time making himself right at home, riffing a medley of memories that are disjointed as all hell. The kind of stories that, if you’re not careful, just might have you at their hallucinatory hello.

Car Crash While Hitchhiking

A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping … A Cherokee filled with bourbon … A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student …

And a family from Marshalltown who headonned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri …

… I rose up sopping wet from sleeping under the pouring rain, and something less than conscious, thanks to the first three of the people I’ve already named—the salesman and the Indian and the student—all of whom had given me drugs.

Circling his hazy narrative, you try and blink away the fog but it’s too late. Your boy Tennessee Williams is starting to have his way, clickety-click-click. You give in to the buzz readily as you wave down Joe for another round.

I didn’t care. They said they’d take me all the way.

It isn’t unlike the jolt of booze but what is entirely different here is that the click is catalyzed by words, his narcotic words, as if you are under a spell of hypnosis. There is something about the guy and his stories you don’t quite trust or maybe it is the opposite in that you feel uneasy at how quickly you have fallen in line even though his narrative continues to detour or worse, pull the rug out completely.

And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.

On account of him saying he is able to see things before they happen, you’d be lying if you said you didn’t think he could help. Even if at the same time you also believe that the living can only know what the living know and that it’s up to the dying or the dead to know the rest.

His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath. He wouldn’t be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn’t, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.

You want to let the magic man in on a few visions from your own crystal ball. Like how you know that soon this full glass of whiskey will be empty and getting old’s a bitch. Or that the grim reaper is coming for us all so the best defense as far as you can see is to hang on for all you got even if holding on isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.

Window to a bewildering life-affirming phenomenon: The horror that is alive when you are confronted with the grim reality of the death of a loved one is simultaneously a deeply damaging harbinger of true despair and an amplification of a beautifully vivid vitality flourishing all around you, within you. You are cleansed with a renewed clarity of understanding that life can only exist within the promise of death. The harmony of this revelatory join might even give you solace if not for another swig of booze serving as memento to the black hole of your current sorry-ass surroundings. In the dingy bar where everybody knows your name, another regular is due at any moment. Sadness. The kind of sadness that knows not even a hint of remorse as it goes about stealing the next minute, hour, lifetime.

And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.

Rule breaker! So what? I used that one already. A line that good deserves a second look. Upon further reflection, its meaning just might begin to change so you ponder the possibilities. But before you can ask the stranger what he actually means, he is gone. God knows why but he has returned to the rain. Any and all answers are somewhere in those crazy thoughts of his. No doubt he’d be able to tell you why he didn’t wait for the storm to pass or for that matter why anybody knows what anybody knows.

My thoughts zoomed pitifully. The travelling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we’d have an accident in the storm.

You look around at the sad lot left in the bar and think it’s not all that different out there in the big bad world than it is right here. While it sure doesn’t look like anyone in this crew is emphatically anticipating what comes next, they do not appear to be in any rush for the alternative either. It’s well-embraced: another round, come what may.