Jesus' Son

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Denis Johnson won a National Book Award for his Viet Nam novel TREE OF SMOKE and that has prompted his publisher, Picador, to reprint his 1992 short-story collection, JESUS' SON.

The new paperback contains eleven stories, each one of which reflects his hard-bitten, unsentimental, bleakly humorous view of the bottom rungs of life. The stories are written in a uniquely stylish way--with a kind of terse poetry that seems ultra-realistic only to take sudden leaps into the surreal.

In Car Crash While Hitchiking, for example, the story's narrator recounts how he caught rides with a salesman, a college student and "a family from Marshalltown." The first drank booze and popped amphetamines as he drove, the undergrad smoked hash, and the midwesterner splashed through the rain in an Oldsmobile, promising not to drive fast. The narrator, though, confides that he's known all along what was going to happen--hitting another car head-on, killing the driver and spraying glass and blood everywhere.

The narrator takes all this in calmly, even as he looks down at the dead man and "the great pity of a person's life on this earth." Later, he's questioned by the police, is taken to a hospital where he tries to get out of being treated. The story then jumps ahead to another time, another hospital, where he's been deposited in a detox ward. "Are you hearing unusual sounds or voices?" the doctor asks.

Not exactly, is his answer. Now what exactly does that mean? the doctor wants to know. "I'm not ready to go into all that," says the narrator, cryptically. Next a nurse gives him a shot--"these are vitamins," she says--and the story concludes thusly: "It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you."

It's narrative leaps like that that make Denis Johnson such a daring and unusual writer.