Short response to “Jesus’s Son” by Denis Johnson

April 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Search for “Realness” in Jesus’s Son

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The two most deeply striking themes running through this novel were a) the characters’ copious drug use and b) their related longing to feel something “real”.

Altered states of drug-induced consciousness ran through every single story, even the final tale after the narrator has entered rehab and is supposedly “clean” — he reveals that the doctors are giving him something that makes him feel disconnected from true reality.  The exact quote is as follows: “I was just learning to live sober, and in fact, I was often confused, especially because some Antabuse I was taking was having a very uncharacteristic effect on me.”  I found this ironic, because every story in the book has been told while the narrator was under the influence of something or other, and even after he’s “living sober” his words are still affected by some external substance.

Drugs crop up in every single story, and I took the greater meaning of this to be the narrator’s (and other characters’ as well) longing to escape their gritty, often quite violent lives to find something more meaningful.  However, in one way or another, each story shows us that sought-after “meaning” which dances  constantly and maddeningly around the characters  — if only they could recognize it as such.  For instance, in “Emergency”, Georgie and the narrator come into possession of a litter of baby rabbits while driving aimlessly around and doing drugs to escape their boring hospital jobs.  Georgie becomes euphorically excited about the bunnies and can’t stop talking about feeding them, raising them, etc.  However, due mainly to the fact that they are always on drugs, the bunnies end up crushed to death in the middle of the night.  In effect, something symbolic of great meaning for Georgie (and for the narrator, too) becomes destroyed thanks to the very substances they use to imbue their “bleak” everyday experience with more happiness and meaning.

It seemed to me that much of this book explored the psyches of people searching their everyday lives for what’s “real”.  In the last story, the narrator comes upon a wild flower growing in a lot which completely captures his imagination.  It seems to him that nothing could be as real as that flower, and almost as though he’s found something magical.  This feeling is echoed in the very first story, when he listens to a woman being told that her husband was killed in a car accident.  “She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek,” he tell us.  “It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it!  I’ve gone everywhere looking for that feeling” (11).  I thought this pretty much encapsulated the feeling of the book as a whole — the characters go everywhere looking for that feeling.  They rob, murder, rape, cheat, travel, drink, experiment, play, and imbibe a huge spectrum of drugs searching for that feeling, but they never quite find it where they expect.  Obviously, this feeling is available only to those who aren’t looking for it.

Copyright Katherine Luketich, 2012.  All rights reserved.

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