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Remembering 'Jesus' Son,' From Denis Johnson

Writer Denis Johnson.
Cindy Johnson
Courtesy of Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Writer Denis Johnson.

Award-winning writer Denis Johnson died Thursday at 67, according to his publisher, Farrar Straus and Giroux. The prolific writer explored many forms during his career, and in 2007, novelist Nathan Englander wrote about Johnson's short story collection Jesus' Son for NPR.

If you're only going to read one book this year about getting stabbed in the eye and crushing tiny, helpless bunnies, then I'd run right out and get Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son.

There are so few books that I go back to again and again, and fewer still that were written in the last 20 years. But I can never get enough of Jesus' Son. It's a small volume of 11 short stories. And it is brutally honest and painfully beautiful. It's set in a down-and-out world of drugs and drink. But wait — don't turn that dial — Mr. Johnson succeeds at this where so many others fail. He doesn't ever romanticize these dark settings while leaving his narrator open to the fact that, despite it all, we may live in a heartbreakingly romantic world.

Just because Mr. Johnson doesn't romanticize, doesn't mean I can't: because I came to these stories in the most wonderful way. Someone — I can't remember who, and don't remember when — gave me a Xeroxed copy of the first story, "Car Crash While Hitchhiking." If you look at the book, you'll see the author's name is absent from the margins, and not even the whole title of the story is there. So I read what I thought was called "Car Crash," and loved it and was moved by it. And then, in the way good reading makes you feel like your connection to it was fated, I soon ended up with a copy of the book in my hands. When I started it, I knew: This is that guy. And I read on and on, and thought, This guy is that good.

I was living in Iowa City at the time, and this book, for my friends and me, became sort of a young writers' bible. This is the kind of thing that could be done. With dialogue that feels like you're getting it verbatim and stripped-down prose, he writes simple, honest stories that have the bigness of great work. The plots go like this: A man shaves his roommate in the hospital, the shave-ee having survived being shot three times by two different wives; there's one about a hospital orderly mopping a floor that's already clean, and another with a guy out on bail drinking at The Vine (a bar I could see from my apartment window, which once again, is me romanticizing).

And, even better, when you read them, the stories might sound like this: "I went out to the farmhouse where Dundun lived to get some pharmaceutical opium..."

Or like this: "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."

Getting back to "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," that painful, stunning and — to me — ultimately hopeful story about death, the narrator finds himself back in detox and at rock bottom. He's hearing voices, seeing things, and, acknowledging his pitiable state, he addresses us, his dear readers. He says quite frankly, "And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you." But we do, Denis Johnson, we do.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
Nathan Englander

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