Denis Johnson's collection of short stories, Jesus' Son, is a brilliant introduction to his work. He writes mostly about the young, dispossessed, drug-addled, drink-addicted people of America. His protagonist in all the stories, the Jesus' son of the title, alternates between trying to keep a job, trying not to steal or take too many pills, and trying to do both to maximum effect. He is never quite at ease anywhere, but he does, in the longest story here, Beverley Home, manage to work in a home for amputees or otherwise medically or physically disabled people, of all ages.
"I 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... seemed to think a job was a happy thing."
He writes a weekly newsletter for the inhabitants, but his main job is described as follows:
"...it was part of my job to touch people. The patients had nothing to do but stumble or wheel themselves through the wide halls in a herd. Traffic flowed in one direction only; those were the rules. I walked against the tide, according to my instructions, greeting everybody and grasping their hands or squeezing their shoulders, because they needed to be touched, and they didn't get much of that."
The two excerpts above give some indication, I feel, of the contradictory elements of his work. Johnson's work is funny in a dark, ironic, counter-cultural way. Of course, these people are not your average successful American of the mid-west hinterland and you cannot expect them to think like you. Who is being addressed here? As with all writing about transgression, the shock element will make you feel it isn't you, but it absolutely is.
This small collection of linked stories opens up a world about which we know little, if anything. We may think we know enough, even too much, about what drugs and drink and other wretched modern ills can do to people, but we don't know what it feels like to be lost in America. This book tells us.
The writing (including the dialogue) is marvellously raw with feeling, subtlety and unreconstructed emotion. It is blunt, strong, thoughtful, full of energy and empathy and fearless in the face of our timid expectations. I loved it.