Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son impressed me in many ways. Though it’s a collection of stories that mostly stand on their own, it also works as a novella, and is an example of knock-your-socks-off first person narration. The persona Johnson creates in these stories drives the entire work. His careful use of imagery, common language and comparison are three examples of how he creates a complete picture of the man introduced even in the first two words—the title.
So much characterization happens in how the first person persona sees things, in the imagery he provides. “We drove with the windows down. The mild spring evening, after several frozen winter months, was like a foreigner breathing in our faces. We took our passenger to a residential street where the buds were forcing themselves out of the tips of branches and the seeds were moaning in the gardens” (18). This bleak description of spring as a violent intruder, forced and full of pain, says so much about how our protagonist views life, without hope or even desire. He keeps living just because he does, not because he is particularly thrilled about living, as indicated in his response to the overdose that could have been him, but because of circumstance, wasn’t, “He died. I am still alive” (42). He sees death, decay, and fragility all around him, a sign of his own depression, lack of purpose or want of a better life. He sees dead crops “like rows of underthings” (51), how the “cows [stand] around smelling one another’s butts” (49), and eyeballs that look like they came from a joke shop. He may be technically alive, but he is not participating in the things that connect us to each other, like love and compassion and vulnerability. He is an outsider looking in, like he was when he was spying on the Mennonite couple, and that is why what he sees is so dark and desperate.
The words are simple but brooding and they are put together as simply as possible, without dwelling too long before moving on to the next thing, as in “It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere” (11). He packs as much into a sentence as possible without extra words or clauses, an imitation of the resigned attitude of the narrator, “ I saw Jack Hotel in an olive-green three-piece suit, with his blond hair combed back and his face shining and suffering” (35). The economy and simplicity of the language fits a character who both thinks deeply about things and has little faith in the hope of human progress.
A good metaphor will do it for me anytime, but one that is not only good, but perfect, because it serves a larger purpose than just to make the story more vivid is divine. Johnson’s metaphors were perfect, all feeding into what is ultimately story after story of characterization. His comparisons are born from the mind of the unnamed heroin addict / writer who narrates the stories. They reveal the darkness of his mind, how unromantic his view of humanity is, “Back in the O.R., Georgie dropped his mop and bent over in the posture of a child soiling its diapers” (71). Again and again, he sees the filth and desperate longing around him. Johnson becomes the writer/actor in feeding us comparisons that further feed our understanding of the narrator. I imagine him transformed at the keyboard, not Johnson at all, but this other unnamed character, this Jesus’ Son, seeing things as he would see them.
There are all sorts of applications to my own writing in closely analyzing Johnson’s work, perhaps most importantly just the subtle influence that reading good writing has on the mind, how it influences in ways unplanned and often unrecognized. However, it’s Johnson’s master characterization that I’d like to really channel for my own work. I have a tendency to focus more on theme or the big picture, or to try to paint too many characters. I believe that focusing on my protagonist can help strengthen the areas in which the current draft of my novel is weak, such as in point-of-view and sustained elaboration. So, can I get back to it, now? 😉