Don’t Wake Him Up--He’s Writing : JESUS’ SON <i> By Denis Johnson</i> ; <i> (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $19; 160 pp.) </i>
Denis Johnson writes as though he inhabits a waking dream. There is that wonderful sense of someone walking around in his own unconscious--you don’t want to wake him up. There’s plenty of knowledge of the outside world, he knows very well what’s going on out here, but his intelligence, at its deepest, may be an animal intelligence. That is, an intelligence that feels, that intuits, that apprehends immediately without having to think. He is inspired , in the truest sense of that once-potent, even dangerous word.
“Jesus’ Son” is Johnson’s fifth book of fiction. Technically, it’s a book of short stories, but the stories all feature the same narrator stuck in the same Midwestern-underbelly lowlife milieu. The separate pieces add to each other, cross-reference and cohere enough to form a novel, albeit perhaps not one in conventional narrative form, with a beginning, middle and end. Yet “Jesus’ Son” is as much a novel as, for instance, Louise Erdrich’s “Love Medicine,” which won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award a few years back.
In any case, this is Denis Johnson’s most accessible and accomplished book, from start to finish, without a single sentence that misses the mark. His previous four novels were all brilliant, each in its unique way. It was hard, though, to see where he was putting himself directly on the line. Taken as a quartet, the four books are tremendously impressive, but taken individually it’s hard to recommend this one or that one as the defining Denis Johnson statement. Each of the books is brilliant, even beautiful, almost show-offy, but none is completely satisfying; the promise of greatness is left tantalizingly, barely unfulfilled.
But now, with “Jesus’ Son,” in retrospect they all make more sense, and look better as part of a growing gestalt . “Jesus’ Son” is in first-person male, and this seems to have freed Johnson enormously, enabling him to live his fiction as never before.
The narrator of “Jesus’ Son” is at different times a heroin addict or an alcoholic, in rehab, an emergency-room clerk or a would-be thief. A deadbeat. The voice is dead-on and intense, reminiscent of Raymond Carver and Jim Thompson, Richard Ford or Jayne Anne Phillips at their perilous best. The difference lies in Johnson’s ability to condense the realism still further, to render the boundaries uncertain between the prosaic and the visionary, so that the hallucinatory quality of extreme experience flows back into ordinary life without a glitch.
In “Dundun,” the narrator goes out to a farmhouse to score some pharmaceutical opium, but finds he’s out of luck. Dundun has shot McInnes, and McInnes “isn’t feeling too good today.” The people at the farm started to drive McInnes to a hospital, but they ran the car into the shed. “Everything was completely out of hand,” someone says.
The narrator sets off in his car, then, with Dundun and McInnes.
“It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller.”
In a little while, McInnes isn’t saying anything any more. He’s dead. Dundun, who killed him, has tears in his eyes, yet is soon musing that he wouldn’t mind working as a hit man.
“We whizzed along through the skeleton remnants of Iowa. . . . The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground like rows of underthings. All the false visions had been erased. It felt like the moment before the Savior comes. And the Savior did come, but we had to wait a long time.”
Dundun goes on to torture someone to find out where some stolen stereo equipment is. He beats a man nearly to death with a tire iron in Austin, Texas. Then he is in prison in Colorado, the narrator thinks.
“Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.”
When the narrator overdoses on heroin but comes to after a couple of hours, he reflects on how close he came to death, and how seldom he has considered such things. Generally he and his friends imagine that they are tragic, helpless, destined to die with handcuffs on. “We would be put a stop to, and it wouldn’t be our fault.”
This sort of material has often been visited by white male American writers, from Hemingway on, but Johnson adds a lyricism that imbues it with new possibilities. In some ways, also, this is Raymond Carver territory, but without the limits imposed by Carver’s vow of blue-collar humility. The very limits that might seem to be set by the material have helped Johnson to break through, to find a voice that expresses the wildness and banality of these utterly American misplaced lives, cutting right to the soul. It’s as if Rimbaud came back from Abyssinia and spent a few years driving around America, hanging out with the riffraff who ended up in “Drugstore Cowboy” or “In Cold Blood.”