I have had Johnson’s story collection (connected story collection, that is) Jesus’ Son (1992) on my shelf for a long time. For whatever reason, despite others reading it and recommending it highly, I avoided it. But I loved finally getting to know Johnson through his novella Train Dreams (my review here), which attracted me due to its setting in Northern Idaho. I finally pulled down and read (in virtually one sitting) Jesus’ Son.
This collection includes eleven stories, all probably narrated by the same troubled young man, sometimes dealing with the same people but in often conflicting ways. The characters are often drug-addicts, trying to hold down jobs in nursing homes and care units, meeting together in a dive bar. Personally, I don’t think many of the stories would hold up on their own, so do simply begin at the beginning, “Car Wreck While Hitchhiking,” when the narrator appears to be at the beginning of his descent, and read through addiction to the final story “Beverly Home,” where there might be a whiff of hope (or was that something else in the wind?).
While I say that it’s best to read this from beginning to end, and the book does follow some narrative progression, it’s also disjointed. For example, a man dies at the end of the third story, “Out on Bail,” but is alive and well in the fourth, “Dundun.” Also, the second story is called “Two Men” but fails to tells us about two men. That comes later in “The Other Man,” which begins:
But I never finished telling you about the two men. I never even started describing the second one, whom I met more or less in the middle of Puget Sound, traveling from Bremerton, Washington, to Seattle.
It’s brilliant story telling to use a narrator who is so dysfunctional he cannot manage to tell a story. Not making it easier for us, the narrator seems to have some kind of extra-sensory powers. In the first story he sees a car wreck before it happens. Later, he goes through a strange night with his friend, and his best explanation is that “I’d wandered into some sort of dream that Wayne was having about his wife, and his house.”
Through the magnificently confused stories, we may be unsure where we are, but we cannot fail to get to know a fragile individual all the better for it. The sadness seeps through, and we pity him even if we’re scared of him. We understand why the women in his life come and go, and it’s all more sad because so does he:
Nothing I could think up, no matter how dramatic or completely horrible, ever made her repent or love me the way she had at first, before she really knew me.
Women are important to this narrative. We get the sense that some terrible things happened to his mother. He says to a woman at a bar, “I’ll never forget you. Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.” Family is complicated throughout:
“Oh, let’s just take him wherever he wants to go.” I didn’t want to go home. My wife was different than she used to be, and we had a six-month-old baby I was afraid of, a little son.
Messed up characters, messed up narrative, overdoses, abortions, hallucinations: it all comes together as one of the best short story collections out there.