Denis Johnson’s book Jesus’ Son set my brain on fire. I discovered it at a book store, and there was no place to sit; I wandered around the store in dizzying laps, mouth agape, astonished at what I was reading. I stopped reading only because a cashier told me they were closing. I rushed home and finished it, and the next day I read it again. It wasn’t just the beauty of the language, though most of the sentences in Johnson’s book are good enough to be framed or tattooed on the inside of someone’s wrist. And it wasn’t just the storytelling, which is visceral and brilliant. I’d never been more taken in by a world, by a character, and that was because I’d never before seen myself so clearly reflected back at me. I was Fuckhead. He was me.
The characters that live in Jesus’ Son were the people I’d spent a good chunk of my life getting into trouble with. I’d stolen checkbooks with guys like Jack Hotel, our faces shining and suffering. I’d spent nights driving along unlit rural roads with guys like Tom and Richard, grinning hungrily into the night, looking for the thing that would save us from ourselves. I’d seen guys like Dundun do terrible things. I’d worked with half a dozen Georgies, and they all raised the same question Fuckhead’s Georgie raises: “‘Does everything you touch turn to shit? Does this happen to you every time?’”
I’d been to jail. I’d broken into strangers’ homes. I often owed dangerous men large amounts of money. I was given every opportunity to change and squandered them all. My sister worried about me constantly. So did my parents. I loved them dearly, but love wasn’t enough. I went to bed many nights listening to the frantic flapping of my heart and wondered if I’d wake up or if I’d die right there, on the padding from a patio chair I used as a bed, surrounded by piles of clothes and open boxes containing my meager belongings. Some nights, I hoped I wouldn’t.
But I did wake up. I got sober. I moved in with my parents, and went back to school.
When I got to college and began writing in earnest, I was surrounded by people who’d been doing it for years. They’d been writing since they were eight, had edited the school newspaper in high school, and had been working all their lives to be writers. I felt like a fraud, that at any moment, everyone would turn to me and politely ask me to leave. I never thought I’d go to college—I’d dropped out of high school three times—but there I was. I began reading everything I could. I brought a book and a pencil everywhere I went—the grocery store, the post office, the dog park. I spent hours at the library. I enjoyed a good percentage of what I read, but I didn’t feel the same way about some of these characters as my friends did. I have a friend who reads Pride and Prejudice every year. I know people who participate in Bloomsday faithfully. I know a guy who has curated a forum dedicated to Infinite Jest for the past seventeen years. One of my oldest friends read David Copperfield during a nickel bid in a Texas prison and considered Copperfield a close friend, someone he thinks about often. People suggested that, given my history, I might connect with Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, or maybe Richard Ford’s stories, and definitely Carver. This, everyone posited, would be the winner.
And, sure, I liked them. Hemingway’s “The Killers” is a masterful story, a great example of the loathsome cliché “show don’t tell.” (This phrase still gives me flashbacks to graduate school, where everyone was so worried about telling too much that their stories ended up filled with characters doing maddeningly subtle things to each other.) Ford’s stories were quiet, often funny, usually devastating. And Carver: hell, of course I loved him. When I taught, I inflicted “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” on my College Writing I students every semester. But these stories didn’t tell my story. I knew people like the protagonists in these stories. They were the people who teased me in high school, or stole my weed when I passed out at a party, or punched me in the face for no reason at all. Fuckhead was different from the stoic anti-heroes presented in Hemingway and company, and so was I. Those men were chest-puffing jocks; I was not. Those men hid their emotions; I cried often, and sometimes for no reason at all. Those men followed The Code; I broke every rule I ever set for myself. Those men were hurting but kept it to themselves; I was relentlessly confessional about my suffering.
Fuckhead was just like me, and he was telling his stories from exactly where I was in life: newly clean, trying to adjust to the strange land of sobriety, trying to do the right thing, still tempted every now and again to go back to the old ways, as Johnson displays here: “Sometimes what I wouldn’t give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m. telling lies to one another, far from God.” From Carver and Hemingway, I felt pressure to button my characters up, make them quieter, less weird. Johnson gave me permission to tell stories about the people I held close to my heart, who I hoped I’d never see again. He gave me the green light to let my characters be their glorious, fucked-up selves.
Also, Johnson’s depiction of Fuckhead’s world was not only vivid and dreamlike in its description, but it was empathetic, created with love. I’d never before seen freaks, weirdos, loonies, and ex-cons treated with such dignity and respect than in the hands of Johnson in Jesus’ Son. For a young writer, this was such an important lesson: create with empathy, not judgement. If you’re judging your characters, you’re not doing it right. I’ll always be grateful to Johnson for teaching me that.
Last week, an old friend of mine died of a heroin overdose. We’d gotten clean around the same time. We had both seemingly escaped our fates as dirtbags spinning perilously toward some terrible future, and we’d bonded over that. After I learned of my friend’s death, and I’d caught my breath, I thought of two lines from Jesus’ Son:
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.
He died. I am still alive.
Photograph of Denis Johnson © Cindy Johnson/FSG.