Denis Johnson: Jesus’ Son

Before Denis Johnson became the Don DeLillo of the noughties (I’m thinking of his unfinishable fat novel Tree of Smoke), he was, apparently, a poet and a short story writer. This, his only short story collection, is unfathomably out of print in the UK.

Jesus’ Son (1992) has perhaps as much claim to be a novel as a collection of stories. The eleven short fictions here have unity of theme, setting and character (all have the same narrator). It also has a consistent sensibility: the telling is clear but confused, as befits a teller who is a recovering alcohol and heroin addict – though at times we’re not quite sure just how recovering he is. Although the narrative is fractured, or at least threateningly weakened in places – for example, a character who dies in one story is alive again in the next – our man is not a consciously unreliable narrator: he tries honestly to convey his impressions, but sometimes fails. This is beautifully displayed, and helps make the whole cohere, at one particular moment. The second story, ‘Two Men’, begins “I met the first man as I was going home from a dance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall.” The narrator proceeds to relate his story, and by the time he gets to the end, we have forgotten the title and the beginning. Later in the collection, the story ‘The Other Man’ begins, “But I never finished telling you about the two men.” This was not the moment when I decided that Jesus’ Son was a work of some brilliance, but it put the tin hat on the conviction.

The nameless narrator drifts as a way of life, “sick of myself and full of joy”, and although he may be off the smack and booze, he’s not averse to a little prescription enlightenment (“The travelling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my veins feel scraped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened”). His hyperawareness makes everything vivid, the real things (like a car crash) and the unreal:

“Are you hearing unusual sounds or voices?” the doctor asked.

“Help us, oh God, it hurts,” the boxes of cotton screamed.

“Not exactly,” I said.

He seems to be drawn to hospitals, whether seeking help (“When I coughed I saw fireflies”), or further chemical stimulation, or work. In ‘Emergency’, the centrepiece of the book and perhaps the strongest story (you can listen to Tobias Wolff reading it here), he is working at the hospital with another muddling soul, Georgie, and they head off together on a road trip. It’s appalling and funny, always at the same time, and the sudden uncertainties (“Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed”) help bring the reader into the narrator’s addled consciousness. “That world! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?” The content, the plot, of the story is almost irrelevant; it’s a spillage of life on the page, seemingly random and shapeless but directed in a subtle and satisfying way. Which is not to say that Johnson is above more obvious pleasures:

“Are you still at all worried about Alsatia?”

“I was kissing her.”

“There’s no law against that,” Richard said.

“It’s not her lawyer I’m worried about.”

In these stories, the ordered and restrained lives of most of us are so far off the scale that they are invisible to the narrator. He may be having a terrible time where he is, but he is not especially interested in joining mainstream society. (“I didn’t want to go home. My wife was different than she used to be, and we had a six-month-old baby I was afraid of, a little son.”) He measures himself instead against those who are even worse than he is, such as the people in an institutional home whose deformities “made God look like a senseless maniac. […] You and I don’t know about these diseases until we get them, in which case we also will be put out of sight.” Or he likes to compare himself with Kid Williams, a former boxer.

He was in his fifties. He’d wasted his entire life. Such people were very dear to those of us who’d wasted only a few years. With Kid Williams sitting across from you it was nothing to contemplate going on like this for another month or two.

Going on is really what Jesus’ Son is about: going on whatever the future holds, even without a future, because the alternative is unfaceable. (Though here there is no explicit acknowledgement of that unnamable factor. He can go on because he does because he can.) Life is life; here the achievement is not staying on the level, but understanding your lot and living it. One man in the Beverly Home has a condition which renders him twisted, in “perpetual spasm”. “No more pretending for him! He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.” There is no self-pity or gloom here, however. “How could I do it,” he asks when spying on a woman through her window, “how could a person go that low? And I understand your question, to which I reply, Are you kidding? That’s nothing. I’d been much lower than that. And I expected to see myself do worse.” To which we reply: you will, sir, you will.


  1. Superb review as ever, and I’m delighted to see this on here: it really is one of the greats. There’s nothing quite like it – Thom Jones is the only writer I can think of that has done anything similar and as brilliantly – and the fact that it is out of print here: what to say about that……?

  2. Oh, Thom Jones. I remember his books from ten years ago or so, published by Faber if I recall (and also now out of print?). I think I avoided them because of my bias against reading books of stories – after all, I bought this one 18 months ago and only now got around to trying it.

  3. I think they are out of print, yes. Another travesty. Sonny Liston Was A Friend Of Mine (much like Jesus’ Son) is one of those books that the mere mention puts a smile on the face. Both instantly belong on any ‘Top ten story collections’ lists. The last I heard he was ‘working on the novel’, much in the same way that Carver was, I guess.

    1. Thom Jones, yes, he was one of my little personal secret favourites when his stuff appeared. Cold Snap is brilliant as well.

      The Sonny Liston collection eventually lead me onto the actual story of Sonny Liston’s life, as told by Nick Tosches in Night Train. The truth is stranger…

      1. That sounds interesting, leroyhunter. I enjoyed Tosches’ book on Jerry Lee Lewis (reviewed here somewhere) so that sounds like a nice little project – Jones, followed by Tosches.

  4. I second the first comment. Both sentence by sentence and in the way his narratives are constructed, Johnson is a treat. For those (like me) too weak-kneed or mean with their time to tackle Tree of Smoke, I recommend a recent novella, The Name of the World (whose narrator, in contrast to the damaged drifters of Jesus’ Son, is a college academic).

  5. Thanks Charles. I’ve heard good things about both The Name of the World and his debut novel Angels. Perverse as it may seem, I still don’t have any particular urge to read them, despite loving Jesus’ Son. Perhaps it’s my antipathy for old, battered, out of print editions.

  6. Ahem – some of us finished Tree of Smoke and think it’s genius but then I am an unashamed fan of Denis Johnson. Up until a few years ago I genuinely felt like the only person who had read him in the UK (until I found out that my father had separately discovered him and then other fans at the now sadly closed bookshop Crockatt and Powell). It began after watching the film adaptation of Jesus’ Son (which is worth a look actually – Billy Cruddup in fine form and Jack Black doing his thing before it became his thing) and being gifted a copy of Already Dead. I actually struggled with that one until I had a breakthrough and then gobbled up his entire back catalogue. He’s a very exciting writer, no two books are the same (or even similar) and he has equal skills in the areas of poetry, fiction, playwriting and journalism.

    Jesus’ Son is a great place to start and to hear that it’s out if print is a shocker (although I’m sure I’ve seen Picador copies around and about). Anyone wanting to read more will be rewarded by the brutal beauty of his first novel Angels, the distilled brilliance of The Name of the World and the fascinating breadth his non-fiction in Seek.

    Just please read him.

  7. Thanks Will, I knew you were a fan and it’s good to have your input. I don’t know about Picador (who are his current UK publishers with Tree of Smoke and Nobody Move), but my copy of Jesus’ Son was published by Methuen in 2004. It has a crappy cover illustration which is why I used the above one (a US edition I think) instead.

  8. Great review John. I love Johnson and I did finish the brilliant, crazy Tree of Smoke (don’t ask me to tell you something as silly as “what it’s about” though) so I’m sold on this from the get-go. Is it out of print? I’m sure I’ve seen a copy lurking on my local’s shelf.

    His more recent Nobody Move is well worth a look – albeit it may tend a little too much towards “crime” for some tastes. But it’s not a crime book, it’s about a group of people living at arm’s-length from the rest of society and trying not to get too badly damaged in the process. He spins the whole tale from a little sliver of normality, a brief setting on the first page, and it’s a headlong ride from there. Great stuff.

  9. Good review, John. Love this collection. Faber & Faber issued the hardcover (which I’ve got), but it’s a shame this is no longer in print (or available) in the UK.

  10. This sounds right up my street but I’ve never heard of him. Thank-you John! And as the author of four out-of-print novels (one of which, A Vicious Circle, is all about the corruptions of reviewing) I applaud your efforts.

  11. Thanks for the comments everyone. Just been looking on Amazon Marketplace, and Jesus’ Son seems to be either prohibitively expensive (twenty quid or more for the crappy edition I have) or altogether unavailable. Except in audio download or a French translation…

  12. Yes, I went on earlier and it’s crazy money. If I only had the time to set up some kind of publishing concern I’d be out there! Thrusting battered copies of Jesus’ Son that set me back 14.52 on Amazon in guilty bored millionaire faces!

  13. Jesus’ Son really is one of those books that changed my life and it would be an utter disgrace if it didn’t get re-issued. I remember reading it 10 years ago at university and I still refer to it now when dscussing writing and I recommend it to different people all the time. Sparse, dark, poetic, edgy, funny and life affirming – Jesus’ Son is without a doubt one of my favourite books of all time. I enjoy a lot of Johnson’s work but this collection of wonderfully carved tales of a man stumbling through life are simply superior to the rest of his great work. Incredible but true. I have never understood why Johnson doesn’t seem to get that much recognition in the U.K. Hopefully that’ll change.

  14. An excellent review and one I’m very pleased to see. I can’t remember when or where I bought my copy (it’s the small Harper Perennial pb) but I do remember reading ‘Car Crash While Hitchhiking’ sitting on a bus and thinking, in that way I sometimes do, that it would be a book I would return to, enviously (and whatever is the opposite of enviously), again and again. True enough, ten or twelve years and multiple house moves later, it’s still in the pile of books by my bed that I pick up when nothing else seems quite right. As you say, these are fractured narratives that twist around gaps in logic, but the effect of the twisting is not to turf you out but to fold you in, in such a way that the stories are hard to let go, in part because you’ve been put in charge of them. Salvatore Scibona, who does a fine job of reading ‘Two Men’ on the New Yorker fiction podcast, talks about the ending of that story: ‘I don’t immediately wonder what will happen next. I immediately wonder what I’m going to do with the terrifying, nightmarish, violent capacity that I’ve just discovered in myself.’ It’s what a good short story (not that the definition seems important here) can do, hand you something and say: ‘Ok, buster, over to you. What are you going to make of this?’
    Thom Jones is a good reference point. Stories like ‘Unchain my Heart’ in ‘The Pugilist at Rest’ give a similar sense of characters separated, by a broken bridge, from the normal run of things. A handful of stories by David Means connect, too (Means has certainly spoken of Johnson in glowing terms), although they seem to lack Johnson’s bewildered and angry sympathy, as here in the story ‘Dundun’:

    ‘Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.’

      1. I’ve not read ‘Already Dead’, but ‘Lightnin’ Man’ is a great story. The difference between Johnson (the ‘Jesus’ Son’ one) and Means seems to be that while Johnson-style characters inhabit the margins of a number of Means’ stories, they are never fully revealed or realised. It’s a question of perspective, I guess. As an aside, Means reviewed Johnson’s ‘Nobody Move’ here:

      2. Thanks Philip, a great review from Means. One excerpt:

        ‘Johnson is one of the last of the hard-core American realist writers, working — in his own way — along a line that might be charted from Melville and Stephen Crane, with a detour through Flannery O’Connor and Don DeLillo. He routinely explores the nature of crime — all his novels have it in one form or an­other — in relation to the nature of grace (yes, grace) and the wider historical and cosmic order.’

  15. Thanks Philip; your last quote is one I had marked in my copy but ended up not including in the review (only room for so many…). Oddly, I didn’t connect with David Means when I read him years ago but that might change now. I know someone else who praises him highly too.

    enviously (and whatever is the opposite of enviously)

    Haha, I know just what you mean!

    Thanks Sandy too for the affirmation, and leroy for identifying that nice edition I pictured (I just did a Google image search and picked one I liked the look of).

    1. It’s an odd thing about David Means: I think he’s brilliant, but he is hard to connect to… there’s something unsolvably chilling in much of his best work, but then I think that’s what keeps drawing me back. Worth another look, I’d say.

      1. Means is a new name to me so thanks for the pointers Philip (and Lee). Just picked up Assorted Fire Events for four quid on Abe.

  16. A great book and an excellent review.

    Regarding rights, if the last UK publisher, Methuen, still retain the paperback rights but have run out of books they’ll be telling booksellers that it’s ‘reprint under consideration.’ This can go on for as long as the term of their license – they don’t have to reprint and no other UK publisher can reissue. If it’s formally designated ‘out of print’ the rights will revert to the original holder; perhaps Picador are waiting for this to happen.

    The original UK publisher was Faber – Johnson is one of a number of fine writers that slipped out of their backlist – Danilo Kis, Gerald Murnane, Desmond Hogan, Georgy Konrad and others; no doubt due to poor sales.

  17. Useful info re rights, seventydys. I remember wondering why Methuen gave up Richard Yates apparently without a fight when Vintage took him into Vintage Classics. What was particularly odd was that Methuen had just finished reissuing his backlist (their last title was Disturbing the Peace, which they reissued in Jan 2007), when Vintage started putting his titles out (Revolutionary Road in Dec 2007, with others following over the next few months). Does this mean that Methuen had a licence for the last few books for only a very short time, or just that Vintage made them an offer to take over their rights that they couldn’t refuse?

    1. I’m guessing that Vintage made them an offer. Methuen Drama – the largest part of that publisher – was acquired by Bloomsbury in 2006 leaving a company called ‘Methuen Publishing’ with a much smaller publishing programme. MP seem to have abandoned their ambition to revive the excellent, and various, as the old Methuen fiction list – that used to include authors as good as Peter Handke, Michel Tournier, Siegfried Lenz, Barbara Comyns, Benedict Kiely, Nawal El-Saadawi, Christopher Isherwood and more.

      1. Yes, the Methuen website right now is a pretty poor thing. (If you google for Methuen, the first search result says, “This is the home of Methuen, the independent publisher of books such as X and Y.”)

        I remember reading Isherwood in Methuen editions and I have a couple of Benedict Kielys. I was also reading about them this week in Terence Blacker’s biog of Willie Donaldson, which reminded me of the crossover humour publishing, with Python books and Graham Chapman’s autobiography.

        A shame that Bloomsbury filleted the drama list from the rest of it, since clearly that was Methuen’s greatest strength. A sad end for a once great house.

  18. Great review John. I too was going to mention Thom Jones, and Mark Richards Ice at the Bottom of the World was another book of US stories originally published around the same time. At my right elbow I have a hardback copy of of Seek, Johnson’s collection of non-fiction reportage which is also worth a look.
    Obviously, without wishing to overly plug we have the US titles in stock.

  19. I agree…Tree of Smoke was far too long so yes, maybe I should try these short stories instead. Now if only I could find a copy in my local bookshop…

  20. A gem of a book and one that really made to me want write. And when I did it made me realise , even more, what a great book it is. It’s hard pull off a character like Fuckhead (It’s the only name I know him by) but through Johnson’s limpid prose, sense of humour and honesty we love him. He’s just trying to figure stuff out, like all of us.
    I suppose I came to it at a time when I too was a little lost, and reading it made me feel less alone.
    There is an special fuzzy energy flashing through the words of Jesus’s Son that jumps off the page each time I read one if it’s stories and it’s a shame that this wonderful book is out of print here. A great loss for readers and Fuckheads everywhere.

  21. This is one of my favourite short story collections (along with Tobias Wolff’s OUR STORY BEGINS, whose reading from JESUS’ SON you rightly point to – it’s great), and this is a great review. I first came across one of the stories reading the Haruki Murakami-editted BIRTHDAY STORIES, and bought the only edition I could find available at the time as soon as I’d finished it.

    The one thing about it being out of print that worked in my favour is the edition that I ended up with is an German-English language learner’s edition, a small red book printed on onion skin paper, and at the bottom of each page it has the more complex verbs and nouns in German, which added significantly to the tripped-out experience of reading it.

  22. Far from out of print in the U.S. I see this book all the time and now feel inexcusably negligent. I’ve heard good things about this book before, but, as is often the case, your review is the one that’s getting me out to get the book.

  23. Great review John.

    I’d not heard of this before (or of many of the collections mentioned in the comments either). I’m a bit leary of stories about addicts, possibly as I’ve read so many of them, but then it’s the writing isn’t it? The writing is what makes it worthwhile, whatever the subject matter.

    That bookdepository link is rather handy.

    “But I never finished telling you about the two men.” Brilliant.

  24. I read it time it came out and already dead at that time read mostly us fiction I liked this and enjoyed the film although seems more remember know for a early appearance of jack black have tree smoke and nobody moves on shelves un read I enjoy this whether it is the shorts collection lead to it dropping out print ,one would imagine his books may drift into modern classics and all get republished or another is adapted for a hit film ala cormac with the road and then all his books suddenly reappeared with those busy covers ,great review john ,all the best stu

  25. I loved this collection of stories. Though Dark and not my cup of tea, I enjoyed each of them thoroughly.

    These stories read like memories recalled from an only occasionally lucid mind, but they are laden with so much nuanced insight into character and experience that they beg to be read several times, each time more slowly than before. Like the best poetry

  26. Strange to see this as I thought Jesus’ Son was regular stock at Brighton Waterstone’s. I only work one day a week so had to wait to check it out but can confirm that we do indeed have a pile of the Picador edition (£9.99 isbn 9780312428747) on ‎”Our vault of lost classics, hidden perennials, and cult titles in waiting” table.

      1. The Oxford Waterstone’s is also importing some lovely US editions. Deckled edges and everything! And McSweeneys, too. It’s a joy to visit.

      2. Import is the only way to get McSweeney’s now that Hamish Hamilton has stopped printing/distributing it in the UK. It never sold or made money for them and I think they only did it to begin with because it was a condition of getting to publish Dave Eggers’ books.

    1. Sara, is the person who imported that for Brighton Waterstone’s called Eddie? I used to work there about 7 years ago and he always had a brilliant recommends table, full of American fiction. It sounds just like his kind of book.

      1. Hi Joe, yes, it is indeed imported in by Eddie, who continues to source the most interesting and essential fiction.

  27. I, too, finished Tree of Smoke and loved it, after reading the excellent Niall Griffiths talking in glowing terms about Johnson. Jesus’ Son is wonderful, and I’d recommend Already Dead and Nobody Move as well.

  28. Just bought Jesus’ Son, in a strange little red paperback, from Book Depository. I got about 250 pages into Tree of Smoke back in early 2008 and only abandoned it because of winter blues. Oddly, it was beginning to remind me of The Power and The Glory, and I need to pick it up again soon.

  29. I’m glad to have someone prepared to give full praise to Tree of Smoke, gav (and long time no see, if you’re the same gav!). Beth, I wonder if that strange little red paperback is the one Harvey referred to above. If so then I shall be testing your German vocab shortly.

  30. Jesus’ Son is on most college reading lists here in the US. I know I first heard and read about it in college, in a cute little Harper Collins edition (about the size of the white Salingers). I’ve since revisited the book a few times and it always gets better. Still can’t get into Tree of Smoke, despite the creepy monkey scene at the very beginning.

    Thanks for the wonderful review, John!

  31. Thanks to you too, nicknick (and when are you going to get that website of yours finished??). How interesting that a book can be so well-regarded in your country that it’s widely studied, whereas here it remains out of print. Certainly, this is a very American book, but are our cultures really so incompatible?

  32. I read this last week based on your review. Thank you, it was wonderful.

    Not only was the writing amazing – bleak, simple, utterly believable – but the collection itself worked so well. It had a coherence and completeness that reminded me why I frequently find short story collections so unsatisfying.

    Instead of the usual jumble of half-worked out ideas, it’s really tight thematically. At times it feels like fragments of a novel – snapshots of a time, a place and a way of living.

    He doesn’t fall into either the Raymond Carver or Jeffery Archer school of leaving so much unsaid or hanging everything on a big ending. The last lines always seem both like a revelation and the logical conclusion of what’s gone before – making each story feel properly satisfying.

    There’s a sustained pace. Everything clocks in at a similar length, making it pleasurable to sit and read cover to cover. (I can’t bear those collections with a stray 35-page story lurking towards the back like a drum solo.)

    When I finished Jesus’ Son, I sat quietly for about fifteen minutes awed by the power of it. And then I went onto Amazon to order Tree of Smoke.

    Cheers for the recommendation

  33. As an American (albeit a New Yorker) it’s fascinating to think of what the English make of Jesus’ Son, esp 20 years later. FOr one thing yoiu should know that for every serious American fiction writer in their twenties and thirties at the time, interested in stories, this book was the seminal event. That voice! He is such an American product. A clueless American faith – in God and also the Gods – lies at its heart. This weird combination of heightened language and also language that is plain to the very edge of avant gard. But anyway it is a great book, absolutely essential. Probably the book that advanced the short story, the concept of what it could be, more than any book since Carver a decade earlier. “And you people, you expect me to save you?” End of Emergency, misquoted I am sure. Oh, his endings that book.

    p.s. Have owned Vicious CIrcle since it came out, inspired to finally read it coming upon the author here.

  34. Congratulations on your review. Or, better, on your reviews, because they’re very well written, conveying personal opinions with solid analysis and a great dialogue with the book itself (showing quotations and giving examples to support your views).

    I’m becoming a very often visitor of your blog, and I hope you continue with your wonderful reviews.

  35. I agree with the previous commenter: the podcast reading of ‘Emergency’ is astounding. A brilliant collection. ‘Train Dreams’ was also a favourite in the recent past. Look forward to the new one. ‘Tree of Smoke’ was an odd one. Does he suit the long form?

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