by a contributor
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.