Chosen by Andrew Bales
Fuckhead Goes to the Moon [and Turns Back]…
Jesusâ€™ Son might as well be the literary worldâ€™s nineties gospel; the book of Johnson. The collection of interconnected storiesâ€” the bulk of which were published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Epoch and so onâ€” punched the literary crowd in the gut when it released twenty years ago. At least thatâ€™s what I hear. I was six at the time and wouldnâ€™t encounter the book for another seventeen years.
Twenty years after its release, PhD grads still tuck this slim book under their arms as if it were an essential guide. As if Fuckheadâ€” the hard to love addict narrator who winds us through back allies and abandoned drive-ins, who situates us alongside skittish doctors and stiff-jawed truckersâ€” knows just which back roads lead to a trove exuding some cold radiance. Itâ€™s this voice and its promise of hard-truth realizations that keeps us coming back.
The experience of reading Jesusâ€™ Son? Imagine the movie Apollo 13. Fast forward through the liftoff, the cute family video conferencing, and the subsequent drama. Try to forget Tom Hanks and the weightless chunks of vomit. Instead, think of that scene where the crew uses the moonâ€™s gravity to slingshot themselves back to earth. This is Johnsonâ€™s strength in Jesusâ€™ Son. His passages are crisp and vivid, guided by a hidden logic that pulls you into orbit around a dark moon. Each cameo and sudden plot turn adds to this quiet acceleration. The stories, in this way, follow a pattern, with most of the tales ending just as the shuttle breaks away from the darkness, propelled with an unresolved intensity back towards earth.
A note here: when I hear that a story is coming through the mind of a drug addict, I tense up. I resist. But Johnson finds ways to experience drugs without falling into the sensory-laden traps of many drug novels. Johnson takes a precise step over this trope by blurring the line between specific kinds of perception. Swings in Fuckheadâ€™s mood are not tied to a hit of this or that, but are triggered (more often than not) by women and weather.
These tapped emotions range from muted sorrow to revelation. But the majority of Jesusâ€™ Son is driven by dry humor and stark contrast. Take this scene from â€œEmergencyâ€ where a doctor searches for an orderly named Georgie who is in O.R., hopelessly slanted on drugs and mopping away at invisible blood:
I was hanging out in the E.R. with fat, quivering Nurse. One of the Family Service doctors that nobody liked came in looking for Georgie to wipe up after him. â€œWhereâ€™s Georgie?â€ this guy asked.
â€œGeorgieâ€™s in O.R.,â€ Nurse said.
â€œNo,â€ Nurse said. â€œStill.â€
â€œStill? Doing what?â€
â€œCleaning the floor.â€
â€œNo,â€ Nurse said again. â€œStill.â€
The stories are dreamy, violent, and lost. A recovered drug addict himself, Johnson expressed some reservations about the autobiographical nature of the stories. But itâ€™s the tense relationship we develop with Fuckhead that drives the collection. Fuckhead tells you living ghost stories. Fuckhead prods your moral limits. Fuckhead tells you he doesnâ€™t give a fuck about pressing a gun to a motherâ€™s head just to see if youâ€™ll step in and stop him. In this way, Johnson implicates you. The reader becomes an accomplice, part of a team. This merger completes in the bookâ€™s final line: â€œI had never knownâ€¦that there might be a place for people like us.â€
To me, Jesusâ€™ Son is about adopting lives. Fuckhead shows us how this works in one of the many seeming jabs at the reader. In â€œThe Other Man,â€ Fuckhead describes a man he meets on a ferry:
He was driving around in a rented car, with an expense account: a youthful international person doing all right. A certain yearning attached itself between us. I wanted to participate in what was happening to him. It was just a careless, instinctive thing. There was nothing of his I wanted in particular. I wanted it all.
The eleven sections of Jesusâ€™ Son are relentless. The guts of the stories ooze out even as the narrator undercuts himself with revision, with contradiction, with a memory that fades. Itâ€™s no wonder then that in â€œEmergency,â€ when Fuckhead and Georgie stop on the side of the highway after hitting a jackrabbit, we get Georgie tearing the rabbit open with a knife, pulling slimy babies from its belly. We get Fuckhead, in a moment of sympathy, nestling the babies against his belly under his shirt to keep them warm. And Fuckhead, being Fuckhead, forgetting about their bodies tucked away against his own, squashing them to death.