Three Notes on Jesus’ Son

by a contributor

Robert Anthony Siegel

My first contact with Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son was reading “Steady Hands” when it came out in Esquire. As you know, the story is just a couple of pages of dialogue, almost completely free of the other elements of scene. There is no viewpoint character, which means that we get no personal history, no thoughts, no memories, and no context. Simply put, a man in some kind of rehab facility shaves a fellow patient because he has the less-shaky set of hands; while he’s at it, the man getting shaved talks a little bit about getting shot by his wife. The story reads like a lost scrap of transcript from some larger investigation into human bewilderment.

I was in an MFA program at the time, obsessed with absorbing what I took to be the rules of story-making, and I was outraged because Johnson’s piece didn’t so much break those rules as simply ignore them, as if they didn’t exist—as if I, the earnest student of those rules, didn’t exist, either. “This isn’t a story!” I bellowed. In retrospect, I think my upset was fueled by the fear that “Steady Hands” might in fact be something else, something more—and the corollary fear, that all stories should aspire to be something more than stories.

I was so confused by “Steady Hands” that I waited years to pick up the collection, but when I finally did, I couldn’t stop reading it. Fuckhead’s voice played dumb, but the stories themselves were very, very smart. Fragmentation, concision, radical jumps in time, highly intuitive narrative structures: it seemed impossible to imagine a truer way to talk about the world. The stories were so artfully contrived that they managed to point out the artifice of storytelling—the story as Yeats’ mechanical bird—while at the same time feeling utterly natural, improvised, artless: something told to you by a stranger in the laundromat, or read in a pamphlet handed to you on the subway by a dirty hand.

For years I thought of Jesus’ Son as hipster stuff, cutting-edge narrative from the underground. It’s only since moving to the South, with its church signs and fire-and-brimstone radio shows, that I’ve realized how old the book is at its heart, a sort of postmodern remake of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Simply put, I’ve come to understand that the title isn’t only a nod to Andy Warhol’s favorite band: Jesus’ Son really is about salvation. There is the overarching narrative, for one, a totally earnest story of addiction and recovery. And then there is the direct engagement of the stories themselves with saving and being saved. Think of “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” in which Fuckhead turns down humanity’s (hallucinated) plea for help; “Work” in which a naked woman parasails over a blasted subdivision like an angel of mercy; and “Emergency” in which, after a particularly destructive night, Fuckhead’s fucked-up co-worker from the hospital announces to the AWOL hitchhiker they plan to drive to Canada in their busted van, “I save lives.”

Johnson is way too smart to lean on religious doctrine of any kind, or otherwise attempt to substitute ideas for truth. The beauty of the collection is that it manages to channel the simplicity of Fuckhead’s yearning while simultaneously capturing the complexity of his experience. Each story takes the theme of salvation and turns it around and around, redefining it from every possible angle, positive, negative, ironic, and illusory. “Work,” for example, is about a day spent stripping copper wire from an abandoned house, an experience that allows Fuckhead to tentatively imagine the possibility that ordinary work and the loveliness of the sky and the river might be sufficient for life. But it is also about the glory of making enough in one shot to get royally fucked up—of being, in other words, saved from that other life. The story’s strange power comes from the fact that it refuses to disentangle those two salvations, that it recognizes both their opposition and their kinship.

Robert Anthony Siegel has been alternately confused and inspired by Jesus’ Son for a long time. His web site is