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Sunday, November 29

Required reading: Jesus'Son by Denis Johnson or how the drifter lives on


Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son is a labor of love. It is about how the reader ends up loving a dysfunctional, drifting man, promiscuous, abusive, with a strange sense of humor, always in search of illegal money. Denis Johnson has the boldness to ask the reader to validate such a character because there is so much love that resides at the very nature of him. If you put love into your craft, it shows in the language, the story, the people, and the cracks. In a word, beauty transcends the obvious flaws in the character's humane doings and mirrors back into the one holding the book:

This boat was pulling behind itself a tremendous triangular kite on a rope. From the kite, up in the air a hundred feet or so, a woman was suspended, belted in somehow, I would have guessed. She had long red hair. She was delicate and white, and naked except for her beautiful hair.

This is from Work, a short story where two men tear down an abandoned house, pulling at the wires, breaking the wooden walls, tired, sweaty and hungry for a quick buck. Outside the window, such vision works as a madeleine to the narrator, and later on, as Wayne admits it his house he is dismantling, they meet his former wife. It seems to be the same red-haired beauty gliding over the river but Wayne denies it so the narrator concludes he softly must have stepped into his friend's dream. One man's dreams are but another's trigger of nostalgia. All women who ever embraced, loved, hated or left him come queuing in his mind: ''Where are all my women now, with their sweet wet words and way, and the miraculous balls of hail popping a green translucence in the yards?''

The imagery of such a memory, the way it sneaks up on the narrator, soft as a summer breeze, aching like an old wound, then pours out into such vivid words, makes the world spins less in slow motion. The narrator stays on one side of it and then this snippet of life stretches way back to you, on the other side. into your very world. You have been touched.


Some writers stand poets in disguise and Denis Johnson is among them. His prose is unadorned, direct, undressed of any artifice or pretense, yet his very essence and ability to see the hidden face of things and people alike penetrate the bare accounts and glitters. His economy of words reminds one of Hemingway or Carver, Johnson’s teacher, yet there is a new layer added to every sequence, rendering it into a unique piece of poetry. These stories of the fallen reminded me of Lucia Berlin’s women who stand at the very end of society, flawed and disallowed, yet making significant human beings.

Denis Johnson called his work ‘a zoo of wild utterances’ thus pointing to the variety of human being walking the very perimeter of his mind. Such characters are bound to breathe in the very metaphor of life as it filters through the mind and heart of their maker. In Dundun, another remarkable little charm, the soy crop is depicted as ‘the failed, wilted cornstalks…laid out on the ground like rows of underthings’. In another, a country fair looks back at the world ‘with sad resignation…bare its breasts.’ It honestly makes you crave for the touch of such places, such a man, such words engulfing the very edge of your senses.
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