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A long, moody bus ride of a book.
on 4 February 1997
These are the stories like Raymond Carver would write if he had this kind of vision and gift with words. Johnson is a poet, turned prose writer. His novel, Fiskadoro, is a feat of imagination; he conceives a new, post-apocalypse world and he invents a new vocabulary and syntax to go with it. This collection of short stories is even better. And don't sniff at the title--Jesus' Son--these stories are entirely legitimate. Most were published in the New Yorker, The Paris Review, or Esquire. Several were selected for the "Best Short Stories of..," where I first came across them.
The character are low, mostly drunks, addicts, and users. The setting is the west, Seattle or Tuscon. A lot of the tales begin, and end, at the Vine, a dive bar downtown.
In the story Work, two friends earn their drinking money by pulling the copper wire out of an abandoned house; not a burglary, one points out, but a salvage job. They watch in amazement from the attic as a woman skis by,nude,her red-hair streaming behind her. It may be a dream, one character suspects, but its turning out to be one of the best days of his life.
In another story, a young man hides in the bushes to spy on a young house wife as she showers. He admits how low this is, but he expect to go lower. He returns every day of the summer, hoping to catch the woman and her husband in the act. He sees something entirely different.
Emergency is my favorite of the collection. A man walks into the hospital with a knife in his eye socket,lodged there by his wife. An orderly, stoned after indiscriminately sampling the hospital's pharamcopia,casually removes the knife while the frantic surgeons are still scrubbing. Driving around later with a friend, they run over a pregnant rabbit. "We killed the mother, but saved the babies," one rejoices. They get lost in a snow storm, and find themselves at an empty drive-in, the speakers all squawking.
Not all the stories are this grim or bleak. And even at their blackest, they are funny. Mostly they are visionary, and beautiful. But its a dilated vision, over real and harsh. If "Leaving Las Vegas" left you cold, so will this collection.
Reading Johnson feels like a visit to an acupunturist; he chooses his words precisely, like needles, to stir dead feelings and revive your imagination.