I can’t write, so I read Denis Johnson…

…and now I know I can’t write.

At times I feel I’m kidding myself. Who do I think I am pretending to be a writer, a poet, a thinker?  I am just an everyday slug without the discipline to get anything really worthwhile done.  And discipline is what you need. How many times do we hear that just showing up is 90% of the struggle?  Just do the work, day in and day out, we are told, and the creation will come.

I don’t do the work.

jesus-sonAnd so as I sneak off for my hour-and-a-half, two hours, I try to jump-start my atrophied mind by reading for a while at first. Unfortunately today, I began re-reading Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a collection of eleven wise, lively, brutal, intense, truthful short-stories.

I’ve never felt so washed up in my life!

The first story,  “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” is riveting. It’s like a very bad car accident that you can’t turn away from. The narrator, the hitchhiker, has been on the road from Texas to Kansas City. The first driver fed him amphetamines and Canadian Club;  the second ride was a hashish filled bubble to the city limits; and the third ride was the fateful ride–a family of four with a nine-month old baby on the back seat, destined to be brutalized in a head-on collision. The narrator is flawed and generous and seemingly prescient, for he seems to know that it is this family that picks him up that will suffer. His final words long after the car accident and while being admitted to the Detox at Seattle General are puzzling–if not telling: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”

God, could it be Jesus’ son?

Much later in the collection–one could label Jesus’ Son an episodic novel rather than a collection of short stories with its single narrator and progressive (though disjointed) chronology–the narrator is in detox and is shaving another man. (The drugs they are giving him have steadied his hands to such a degree that he has taken to shaving fellow patients.) Here is part of the scene:

Just below one cheekbone, Bill had a small blemish where a bullet had entered his face, and in the other cheek a slightly larger scar where the slug had gone on its way.

“When you were shot right through your face like that, did the bullet go on to do anything interesting?”

“How would I know? I didn’t take notes. Even if it goes on through, you still feel like you just got shot in the head?”

But they aren’t Bill’s only wounds. “I’ve been shot twice,” Bill reveals. …”Once by each wife for a total of three bullets, making four holes, three ins and one out.”

This is the world of Jesus’ Son. There are bullet wounds and heartaches. There is addiction and abortion, love and lovelessness, disease and car-crashes and murder. Johnson once said about his stories “Some of us go to the movies to see everybody shooting each other, and then there’s another bunch who actually shoot each other.” It is this latter bunch that people Johnson’s stories. But in addition to “shoot[ing] each other,” they seek salvation, search for love, and try to survive on the wrong track that life has set them on.

Intense and unsettling, witty and thrilling, the stories are both unforgettable and beautiful.  Something any writer should aspire to.

So, Another Weird Coincidence…

So, I had sneaked out to this coffee house to do this wee bit of writing and reading. And I was considering saying something about the title–Jesus’ Son–and how it was taken from the Lou Reed song “Heroin.”  I had just decided against it when Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” comes on the sound-system and that sealed the deal.  When I mentioned the coincidence to the guy at the counter, he replied, “Lou is everywhere.”  I didn’t know, hah!

So, if you want, here’s a recent version of Lou Reed singing “Heroin” from where the title came:


4 thoughts on “I can’t write, so I read Denis Johnson…

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