Treehouse

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Tag: denis johnson

All Those Weirdos, and Us

by a contributor

Matt Bell

Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son famously ends with the lines, “All those weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” And it sounds so redemptive after all the misery and confusion that has come before, and because we are given no more access to our narrator’s future it is easy to read it in such a way—that is, after all, how we mostly expect books to end. (Certainly the makers of the film version of Jesus’ Son made this mistake, amid others, because their script rewrote Johnson’s ambiguous and disjointed masterpiece into a cheaper and more-linear junkie-love redemption story.) But what Denis Johnson seems to actually offer isn’t a kind of false (or, at best, merely narrative) redemption, but something else—and in my opinion something better than just another salvation story, the default mode of most of our popular narratives in books and movies.

“Beverly Home” is the last story in Jesus’ Son, and it begins with our nameless narrator describing a probably-married woman he meets working at a nursery, who invites him to come back and see her again. He knows he won’t go back, but not because she’s married—it’s because she “seemed much too grown-up” for him. He goes on to talk about how in those days he “was a whimpering dog inside, nothing more than that”:

I looked for work because people seemed to believe I should look for work, and when I found a job I believed I was happy about it because these same people—counselors and Narcotics Anonymous members and such—seemed to think a job was a happy thing.

The narrator—seemingly still in fairly bad shape, even if he is sober—then describes at some length this job working at the titular Beverly Home, a hospital for the old and the infirm and also those who were “fine,” except they “couldn’t be allowed out on the street with their impossible deformities” that made “God look like a senseless maniac.” Describing one patient, our narrator almost gleefully says, “No more pretending for him! He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.” Of another, he says, “It wasn’t his physical condition that kept him here, but his sadness”—and given the number of times variants on the word “sadness” appear in this story, it is impossible for this observation to not also reflect back upon our narrator, whose problems in this time are more spiritual or psychological than physical, more of the past than of the future.

Tellingly, in a story that uses four fragmentary, non-linear bits of narrative to start its movement, Johnson segues out of the first long passage describing Beverly Home and into the next part of the story without such a break: He moves uninterrupted from the “magisterial sadness” of that last patient to his narrator’s replacement addiction, a home in east Phoenix where he stands on tiptoe to watch a possibly-Mennonite woman sing in the shower, singing “with the unconsciousness, the obliviousness, of a castaway,” suggesting that this experience outside of Beverly Home also fits among the descriptions of the deformities within it. Here we also see a perfect example of the way that Johnson takes the transcendence of this already-questionable moment—the narrator feels “weightless” while peeping, hovering there with his chin about the windowsill—and undercuts it with the narrator’s criminal thoughts:

She toweled off quickly, briskly, never touching herself in any indulgent or particularly sensual way. That was disappointing. But it was virginal and exciting, too. I had thoughts of breaking through the glass and raping her. But I would have been ashamed to have her see me. I thought I might be able to do something like that if I were wearing a mask.

Later the narrator tells us about dating a woman he describes as a “dwarf,” saying that the television always played when they made love, because he “was afraid to make love to her without the conversation and laughter from that false universe playing in our ears”: “I didn’t want to get to know her very well, and didn’t want to be bridging any silences with our eyes.”

And yet, despite these many flaws and character defects, one of the great accomplishments of Jesus’ Son is the ways in which we are made to love this nameless narrator, in all his monstrous beauty: He is funny and charming and (I imagine) good-looking in a certain kind of way, and in his speech he is capable of gorgeous turns of phrase and seemingly-deep insights—even if those insights rarely better his life, in the way we sometimes hope insight might.

In the end, I believe we know too much of who he really is (or at least who he has been) to love this narrator in any way but by loving him as a junkie first: by loving him even while accepting that he is likely going to backslide, that despite his moments of overwhelming honesty he is sometimes lying to us, that he is likely to disappoint us again and again. Even if our narrator never uses drugs again that will not stop him from being a junkie in other ways. There is no fundamental change being offered here that will completely shift the balance in his personality: through most of the book he is truly cruel in his interactions with others (he holds a mother to her apartment floor at gunpoint; he does handfuls of pills while working in an emergency room; he lies about getting a vasectomy to his girlfriend on the way to getting an abortion, telling her that her unborn child belongs to someone else; he punches another girlfriend in the stomach outside a motel), and there is nothing to suggest that the worst of this sort of behavior has ended completely. Rather it seems more likely that it has merely receded, even from his perspective: While watching the Mennonite woman through her window—something he does so often that he frequently misses his bus home—he says, “How could I do it, 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.”

So if not redemption, then what are we offered there at the end, in those famous last lines, and what does the narrator find at Beverly Home? Shortly before the end, he tells us, “I felt about the circular hallway of Beverly Home as about the place where, between our lives on this earth, we go back to mingle with other souls waiting to be born.” This isn’t an image of redemption—it’s not heaven—but of a kind of near-reincarnation, and as such it has a different connotation: The narrator isn’t imagining that he might be saved, but that he might have a chance to try again. Beverly Home has become the place just before life, a place where he imagines he is “waiting to be born” (note, not “reborn”), a chance perhaps not even to start again—but rather at last to start from. He hasn’t actually started yet, perhaps never will, but there is a kind of hope here, and in a world as difficult as ours—and with our own actions and thoughts often revealing us to also be some variety of beautiful monster, as Johnson’s narrator’s actions and thoughts so often do—hope might be all we can reasonably expect. It is thanks to Johnson’s great restraint that Jesus’ Son ends not in the fulfillment of that hope, but merely in the presence of its promise, held there in “that place for people like us.” “I was getting my looks back,” our narrator says, “and my spirits were rising, and this was all in all a happy time for me”—and we might presume that this valuation includes his weaknesses too, his bad behaviors and backslidings. And yet in the presence of his worst qualities, still some happiness, still some hope. It’s more than some of us ever get. It’s more than enough.


Matt Bell is the author of Cataclysm Baby, a novella, and How They Were Found, a collection of fiction. His stories have been selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. He is the Senior Editor at Dzanc Books, where he also runs the literary magazine The Collagist, and in the fall he will join the creative writing faculty at Northern Michigan University.

Intermittent Magic and Uncorrectable Mistakes

by a contributor

Matthew Specktor

I suppose it’s unsurprising that a book called Jesus’ Son should inspire something like worship. People aren’t just admiring of these stories, they’re fervent. Which speaks to the book’s power, its radiant intensity: even twenty years after a story like “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” came along and freaked everybody out, that story still feels wrong, still feels transgressive in a way so many other things (the Velvet Underground song from which the collection derives its title, say) just don’t. It’s easy for a work of art to become wallpaper, for the electricity to drain from something that carries an extraordinary charge: familiarity mightn’t breed contempt, but it certainly breeds comfort. Not here. I can open Jesus’ Son and still feel violated by its most reckless passages, still feel excited by the things that excited me the first time. The book doesn’t just ‘endure,’ it sustains.

The thing is, and maybe this is just the dash of heresy the book itself summons, much of it isn’t very good. Some of it isn’t: for every “Emergency” or “Work,” there’s a flaccid sketch like “Steady Hands at Seattle General” or a story that overheats into sentimentality like “Dirty Wedding.” This isn’t to say I don’t love the book: I do, and one of the things I love about it is this unevenness, the fact that its skyscraping peaks are just that: peaks. It’s enough to say the book takes such caterwauling risks, it’s hardly a sin for it to fail once in a while: it humanizes the book, which otherwise (I’m not making this up) would risk being cold, Olympian. Think of the moment in “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” where Fuckhead exults in hearing the grieving mother’s shrieks (“What a pair of lungs!…It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it!”). Think of the sudden, swooning close of “Work.” (“Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”) These passages, and others, earn their status by virtue of their radical distance: emotionally, temporally, dramatically and metaphorically they bend in ways they really shouldn’t, torquing away from regular experience, ordinary perception, into something transcendent. To see Johnson straining and (for my money, at least) failing to achieve similar effects elsewhere is weirdly heartening, is more interesting to me than if the book were an unbroken chain of perfection. Maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m too insistent on an artist’s right to fail: I wouldn’t necessarily argue that Self Portrait is a ‘good’ Bob Dylan album, but I would certainly contend that Bob Dylan wouldn’t be Bob Dylan without it (nor would Philip Roth without The Breast, etc.). So?

I suppose what I take out of Jesus’ Son is thus what’s most useful, in literature and in life: a go-for-broke intensity combined with a living illustration (and really, isn’t this what the book is trying to tell us? Back when I first read it, in the early 90s, I would’ve found my life as hopeless, as thwarted, albeit for quite different reasons, as Fuckhead’s) that one can make intermittent magic out of one’s least correctable mistakes. The book is a mess, but so am I, and so are you. I wouldn’t really want it any other way.


Matthew Specktor is the author of the novel American Dream Machine, forthcoming from Tin House. He is Senior Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewspecktor.

Great Gray Brains

by a contributor

Michael Wolfe

In spring of 2007, in central Texas, I taught one section of Composition II while finishing an MFA in creative writing. Denis Johnson had spent the year as our program’s endowed chair, teaching a graduate fiction workshop and putting the finishing touches on Tree of Smoke, which would win the National Book Award.

If you’re a freshman reading this and you’re in a composition course taught by a first- or second-year graduate assistant—know that s/he is clueless. We had no idea what the fuck to do. After six years of teaching composition, I am as mystified by it as I was my first day.

Half of my job as a comp teacher was tossing up ideas and texts to see what stuck. Here’s a Didion-smash, a Welty-plop. The shattered Wallace, busted Baldwin. The department issued us with a doorstopper anthology that my students loathed more than I did; it was only in criticizing its editors where we shared taste.

When the English department announced that Denis would be visiting, Sue—the woman responsible for teaching graduate students how to teach—asked for volunteers to help her develop curriculum based on Train Dreams. I knew that my students weren’t going to dig it, and after two and a half years of teaching freshmen and receiving remarkably average course evaluations, it seemed clear that I wasn’t about to have a teaching breakthrough. The only thing I knew to do was to teach what I loved. So I volunteered.

But to teach your favorite writers is suicide. You sacrifice the sacred. You enter into an agreement with 18-year-olds to share your best insights about a text that pickles your guts and gets you laid, and you hope it will affect them in the same way, then in a similar way, and by your third or fourth semester teaching, you’d settle for a way.

I loaned Sue three or four of Denis’ books, and when I asked her about teaching Jesus’ Son instead of Train Dreams, she said, “Too grim.”

There’s always a full candy dish on her desk and it’s the sort of candy dish you could feel guilty taking multiple pieces from.

“There’s a movie,” I said. “Jack Black is in it. They like Jack Black. They can relate to him.”

Train Dreams can be taught through a historical lens, which will be good for these students. It’s very teachable.”

“It’s so long,” I said, speaking on behalf of my students, and just like them. “Almost a hundred pages!”

I taught both. In fact, I created an entire unit—the final unit of the year—called Denis Johnson. I photocopied five stories from Jesus’ Son and assembled hundreds of pages in the front seat of my car across the street from the University, like some deranged pamphleteer. If I’d made enough money to buy them their own books I absolutely would have.

But I couldn’t buy them books any more than I could tell them what to like. Suddenly you’re put in charge of transforming lives by cultivating a new generation of creative and critical thinkers, and more than 3/4 of them told you on the first day they were only in your class because it was required, they hate English. Graduation nears and you realize you haven’t a clue what’s next, all you want to do is write one true sentence, then another, and you realize you’re another MFA cliché and your favorite author is Denis Johnson, who’s sitting five feet from you reading “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” You realize that this is as good as it gets, and that those 22 kids who don’t know how lucky they are and who are responsible for your teaching evaluations, your future—those 44 eyeballs stabbing your hangover at 9 o’clock on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday morning—well, they’re ridiculous.

After Denis read that last line, they stared at us, and us at them, each other, the clock. We still had twenty minutes left of class. I’d only ever wanted to say just that to them: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” And here I had, if only a hand didn’t suddenly raise, if Denis or I didn’t speak from terror of those eyeballs staking us, if a cell phone didn’t ring. I never asked them what they were thinking and I didn’t care—still don’t. My only thought was please don’t anyone say anything, please listen to this.

One of the miracles of “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” is in the silence that follows the story. Five years later I’m not certain how long ours lasted after he finished reading, and anything I say will ring wrong—33 seconds or 2 1/2 minutes, until we heard the classes next to us rustle the hallways, the bus brakes hiss outside, life call—all I can say honestly is that it was long enough for an impact. It resembled the final shot of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” video: school kids stunned, blood drying on their hands and faces. Denis shrugged his shoulders and class dismissed.


Michael Wolfe was given a signed German translation of Jesus’ Son that he can’t read. He co-founded Front Porch (www.frontporchjournal.com) and his writing and interviews have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Phoebe, American Book Review and elsewhere. He lives in L.A.

On “Dundun”

by a contributor

Patrick Somerville

It’s not the iconic story of the book and Dundun is more a glued-together cluster of nightmares and ideas than a character, but I’ve always remembered it and always been afraid of it. Not just because Dundun casually murders McInnes, and he fades away after a long pause and an “okay” in the back of the car, but more because of the story’s bizarre matrix of imagery, the intrusion of what has to be called a comic tone into a story about sadism, the hyperbolic non sequiturs scattered across the eleven stories of the book reaching a kind of pure focal point of half-insanity as Fuckhead tries to analyze the situation in the way that he analyzes situations. He falls asleep while he’s driving them to the hospital? Briefly? No he doesn’t. But he does. And such is the book’s perfect and twisted reality, the crisp and inexplicable dream of surprise within surprise. How dare you end with that soldering iron? I would call it perfect if I thought such things were possible.


Patrick Somerville’s fourth book, This Bright River, will be out in June from Reagan Arthur Books/Little, Brown. He lives with his wife and son in Chicago.

Dreams with Consequence: How Jesus’ Son Gets Away with Shit Other Books Just Can’t

by a contributor

Chris McCormick

Al, the best friend of my sister’s then-boyfriend, was a writer. I knew him in my early years in college, just when I was beginning to write my own first attempts at stories. Six years my senior, Al had studied with Joyce Carol Oates—one of my early idols—as an undergraduate at Princeton, and went on to earn his MFA at Columbia, where he’d written a collection of stories I never read but assumed were masterpieces. Naturally, I looked up to him. I asked about his novel-in-progress, and listened to him expound on the importance of writing in long-hand. (Instant messaging, he said, had taught our generation to use computers strictly as an anti-thought communications tool.) In the end, I didn’t learn much from Al about the art of writing fiction. But the best thing he ever did for my writing was he bought me my first copy of Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson.

Well, it didn’t start off so good. Jesus’ Son is one of those books that makes beginning fiction writers take one step back before taking two steps forward. I was no exception. It’s the style, the tone, the subject matter—I loved all three, and because Johnson is such a master, I got the idea it was simple to do. I was wrong, of course, and I ended up writing cheap imitations for some time before letting the influence reside somewhere deeper in my own consciousness and voice.

That’s a long way of saying I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is it that makes the stories in Jesus’ Son work, then, when the same elements—dream-like narration, drug-addicted characters, grimy, violent environments—come off as sensationalist or melodramatic or hokey in the hands of so many other writers, beginners or otherwise.

The vague—but correct—answer is the one Tobias Wolff offered to The New Yorker fiction editor in a podcast about Jesus’ Son originally airing in May of 2009: “The answer lies in the art.” It comes down, finally, to the sentences. I think that’s true, but I would argue there’s something a bit more complicated at work here, too.

Roland Barthes wrote a book (The Pleasure of the Text) exploring what it is we do when we enjoy a text. Part of his theory is this idea that pleasure is the result of a “seam” created by two opposing forces—“edges”—in the work. He offers an example of Marquis de Sade’s sentences—“so pure they might be used as grammatical models”—containing vulgar, pornographic messages. In other words, neither the pure sentences alone nor the vulgarities alone can produce real pleasure for the reader; the pleasure of reading those sentences happens only because of the compromise—the seam—created by the two edges.

That’s where Jesus’ Son comes in. It would be easy to go through Johnson’s sentences and apply Barthes’ example of syntactic purity conveying chaotic brutalities. There’s at least one example in every paragraph. But that doesn’t, in itself, answer the question of why Jesus’ Son works.

The answer, at least for me, lies in the same principle, only applied on a broader scale. The entire book—the arc from the first story to the last—functions in the seam between consciousness and sub-consciousness. Take a look at the first sentences of the book’s opening story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking:”

A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping … A Cherokee filled with bourbon … A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student …

And a family from Marshalltown who head-onned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri …

… I rose up sopping wet from sleeping under the pouring rain, and something less than conscious …

Notice the ellipses. Johnson begins Jesus’ Son with a barrage of anti-chronological flashes of dream-like images, and introduces our narrator immediately as someone coming out of sleep—half-awake. The entire book, then, is framed within the gray area between dreams and reality. But why is that important?

Let’s pretend for a minute that Jesus’ Son was written not at the seam, but from one side or the other. If Fuckhead, the book’s first-person narrator, told the stories entirely from the side of consciousness, a few problems would arise. First—and this is the obvious one—the authenticity of his voice would be called into question. He is, after all, a drug addict under the influence in most of the stories, so how lucid could he plausibly be?

A subtler problem, it seems to me, would be the loss of the poetic beauty and resulting moments of joyous epiphany in the stories. There are images Fuckhead encounters in his semi-conscious state that have a celestial power, a power stemmed from the fact that the reader, like Fuckhead himself, begins to see these images as a combination of the real and the imagined, the actual and the ethereal.

Look at two images from the stories “Work” and “Emergency.” In “Work,” Fuckhead and his friend Wayne are busy stripping copper wires from Wayne’s old house for scrap money when they see a naked, redheaded woman (who turns out to be Wayne’s wife) on a parasail, flying over a river, strung along by a motorized boat. (You try summarizing it.) In “Emergency,” Fuckhead and a coworker, Georgie, are driving in the frozen Iowa night and come upon what Fuckhead believes at first to be a group of angels “descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity.” It turns out what he’s actually seeing is the screen of a drive-in movie theater. These kinds of visions would come off on the side of sensationalism and absurdity through a strictly conscious, realistic lens—how realistic is it to see a friend’s naked wife soaring overhead, or stumble upon a drive-in movie in a blizzard?

And what about the flip-side? What if Johnson had written Jesus’ Son exclusively on the subconscious end—the hallucinatory dream end—of the spectrum? Reading the flying woman and the drive-in angels as no more than dreamed symbols of divine salvation—wouldn’t that be the cheapest tip of the hat to every armchair psychologist in the world?

The truth is, that’s exactly where most beginners trying to write like Denis Johnson get themselves into trouble. They think writing from the perspective of a drug-addict is a “license”—as Tobias Wolff puts it in the same interview—to write stories “descending into chaos and formlessness.” Maybe you’ve been in a workshop with one of those beginning writers, and complained that nothing in the story makes any sense.

“It’s not supposed to make sense,” the beginning writer says, swiping his bangs from one side of his forehead to the other.

The beginning writer doesn’t get it. (Surprise: that beginning writer was yours truly.) But Denis Johnson does, and to prove it, he’s got a direct response to that beginning writer in the book itself.

In the story “Steady Hands in Seattle General,” Fuckhead is rehabilitating in the hospital with another man, a guy called Bill. While Fuckhead is giving Bill a shave, he notices two bullet holes in the guy’s cheeks—one where the bullet entered, another where it made its escape. Bill tells the story of his ex-wife, who shot him. He goes on to say that while he was knocked out from the bullet, he had a dream, which he still remembers and continues to have from time to time. When Fuckhead asks him to describe the dream, Bill says, “How could I tell you about it? It was a dream. It didn’t make any fucking sense, man.”

Still, Fuckhead wants something—anything—to understand the dream. And what Bill says next is what Denis Johnson wants the reader to underline a thousand times when considering why these stories could only work in that space Roland Barthes would call the seam:

Well, for one thing, the dream is something that keeps coming back over and over. I mean, when I’m awake … And the dream wasn’t—there wasn’t anything sad about it. But when I remember it, I get like, Fuck, man, she really, she shot me. And here’s that dream.

There it is, the answer to my question in a few sentences spoken by a fictional man with bullet holes in his face. Jesus’ Son works because it’s like Bill’s recurring dream in two major ways:

  1. Despite all the shit—the violence and the despair—it’s not “sad” or sentimental. Still, it’s not detached or insensitive, either. There’s feeling there.
  2. It’s a recurring dream he has when he’s awake—a subconscious experience, experienced consciously—inseparable from real life. In other words, it’s a dream with real consequence.

In the end, you’ll ask a hundred readers why Jesus’ Son is a great work of fiction and you’ll get a hundred different answers. But if you’re asking this reader, I’d say it’s all about Barthes’ seam, and what Jesus’ Son does there. It doesn’t slip into sensationalism or sentimentality. But neither does it avoid them, either by irony or detachment. Instead, it confronts sensationalism and sentimentality. The pleasure exists not in the outcome one way or the other, but in the confrontation itself. Beginning writers, awed by the viciousness and revelation of the lives in Jesus’ Son, will continue to write stories suffering from its initial impact. Eventually, though, if they keep reading it over the years, they’ll realize what he’s really up to. Maybe then they’ll be able, finally, to move on and write something great themselves.


Chris McCormick is a fiction writer from California. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southeast Review, Flyway, and Fiddleblack, among others. Beginning in the fall, he will attend the MFA program at the University of Michigan. Follow him on Twitter: @chris_mccorm

Three Notes on Jesus’ Son

by a contributor

Robert Anthony Siegel

1.
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.

2.
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.

3.
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 robertanthonysiegel.com.

5 Great Slacker Novels (Lichtman)

by Treehouse Editors

Johannes Lichtman

Adam Wilson’s hilarious debut novel Flatscreen (2012) follows Eli Schwartz, a young movie-loving slacker who decides to forgo college to stay at home with his mother. Problem: Eli’s mother soon sells their home to a wheelchair-bound, Oxy-snorting actor, and moves to Florida to be with her new boyfriend, Jeff Goldblum (not the actor). Tom Perrotta called Flatscreen “The slacker novel to end all slacker novels,” which is a bit of an exaggeration, but he did make this declaration in blurb-form, and recent years have demonstrated how out of control that can get.

Wilson’s clipped deadpan makes his novel, though not the slacker novel to end all slacker novels, still a pretty damn good read. Eli describes his first sexual encounter in recent memory like so: “She smelled like my mother’s perfume. Bit my earlobe, guided me inside her with her hand. Sheets were soft. I estimated thread count, ejaculated immediately.”

Here are five other great books about slackers.

Pride and Prejudice (1813): Elizabeth Bennet—eloquent, intelligent, strong-willed, and charming as she is—isn’t your prototypical slacker. But over the course of the novel, she doesn’t do much but take walks, write letters, and converse. Yet like any great slacker protagonist, she manages to make these idle activities totally fascinating.

Lucky Jim (1954): Kingsley Amis’ finest novel, which follows a self-destructive, sardonic, disinterested college professor, set the stage for great college campus novels in years to come, like Richard Russo’s Straight Man and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. It also features “the best hangover scene ever written.”

Jesus’ Son (1992): In the short story “Work,” from the middle section of Denis Johnson’s seminal book, Fuckhead says, “Usually we felt guilty and frightened, because there was something wrong with us, and we didn’t know what it was; but today we had the feeling of men who had worked.” The “work” that Fuckhead, a heroin addict, and his alcoholic friend Wayne have just completed is stealing the copper wire from an old house. In addition to writing one of the most kickass books ever, Denis Johnson made a great cameo in the movie version as the guy with the knife in his face.

Out of Sheer Rage (1998): “My greatest urge in life is to do nothing,” Geoff Dyer admits near the end of his memoir of not writing a biography of D.H. Lawrence. Dyer perfectly describes the agony of writing and of slackerdom in general when he writes, “It’s not even an absence of motivation I lack, for I do have a strong urge: to do nothing…Except I know that if I do that I will fall into despair.”

The Epicure’s Lament (2004): “The beauty of human existence is the control we exert over our surroundings,” says Hugo Whittier, the cigarette-smoking, Montaigne-reading, misanthropic foodie at the center of Christensen’s funniest novel. “Nature is only attractive to me insofar as I can mow, cook, kill, or change its components to my liking.” Unfortunately for Hugo, his cloistered existence is interrupted when his brother shows up in the wake of a divorce wanting to stay with Hugo and talk about his problems. Hugo is not enthusiastic: “The lascivious pleasure I derive from phrases such as ‘mercurial quiddity’ might possibly be all that prevents me now from flinging myself downstairs to beat my brother about the face and neck with my bare hands, shouting invectives and heartfelt pleas to go away.”


Johannes Lichtman is the acting mother goose to the Treehouse gaggle. His work has been published or is forthcoming in The Oxford American and Barrelhouse. Online work can be found here, here, and here.

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