Set in the present day West and Midwest and narrated by a young, unnamed heroin addict, the short stories in Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son etch in steely detail a world where pain, violence and profound isolation are as regular as Happy Hour at the local bar. Beauty and horror alike commingle in visions of lyrical grace in the mind of the tortured hero. He ends the first story, "Car Crash," with a vivid hallucination and a cry to the reader: "And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you."
The protagonist's visions offer glimpses of beautiful but ultimately unreal scenes. In "Emergency," angels appear to the hero in a meadow, "their huge faces streaked with pity." What he really sees is a drive-in movie screen. In "Work" two men strip an abandoned house for scrap wire; afterwards they go to the local bar, where the barmaid "poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring." This "angel" bartends in a grungy bar, but to the sobbing protagonist she is nurse and mother.
Johnson has two collections of poetry and the language in Jesus' Son often has the feel of sudden poetry to it. His straight, pared down description occasionally swells, mid-sentence, to an intense and concentrated tone. Within the same sentence, he lowers the pitch again. The effect is stunning; life and language alike become the subjects of mind-boggling, lyrical leaps.
The first, and most powerful story, "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," chronicles the hitchhiking adventures of the mid-twenties protagonist. Doped up, drunk and soaking wet, the crash leaves him stunned, disconnected and even more incoherent than usual.
He wanders to the other car, out of which hangs a "badly broken" man. The sight is gruesome; blood bubbles out of the man's mouth and he will be dead soon. "I knew that, but he didn't, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of this person's life on this earth. I don't mean that we all end up dead, that's not the great pity. I mean that he couldn't tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn't tell him what was real."
Attempts to establish a communication between the "dream" of the real and the real itself occur throughout the eleven short stories. In "The Other Man," he meets a woman who has just gotten married and dances with her in a bar. She begs him to come home with her, saying "I want to love you baby." The kiss and despite the suspended, inconclusive ending to this story, "It was there. It was...The beautiful stranger. The torn moon mended. Our fingers touching away the tears. It was there." But the tear in the moon is huge and gaping for the lost, aching and alcoholic souls of Jesus' Son; any mending short of the fleeting or miraculous seems incredible.
In the last story, "Beverly Home," the hero undergoes a final rehabilitation. Working at a home for the aged, he literally touches the freaks of age and dementia. Slowly recovering his own health, he embraces both the stupefied, paralyzed and immensely sad inhabitants of the "O-shaped, turquoise blue hospital" and his own dwarf-like, crippled girl friends.
But after so much piercing, visionary pain, rehabilitation is neither a believable nor an appealing option. The angels at the drive in and behind the bar speak louder than the apostrophes which end many of the stories, addressing the reader. Johnson's depictions of the druggie's singular experiences shine with a metallic grace; the visions, the "rushing on a run," resist the very messiness of the world in which they occur. This simultaneous representation of a crude reality and a burning vision is Johnson's final unresolved gift to the reader.