Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son famously ends with the lines, “All those weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.” And it sounds so redemptive after all the misery and confusion that has come before, and because we are given no more access to our narrator’s future it is easy to read it in such a way—that is, after all, how we mostly expect books to end. (Certainly the makers of the film version of Jesus’ Son made this mistake, amid others, because their script rewrote Johnson’s ambiguous and disjointed masterpiece into a cheaper and more-linear junkie-love redemption story.) But what Denis Johnson seems to actually offer isn’t a kind of false (or, at best, merely narrative) redemption, but something else—and in my opinion something better than just another salvation story, the default mode of most of our popular narratives in books and movies.
“Beverly Home” is the last story in Jesus’ Son, and it begins with our nameless narrator describing a probably-married woman he meets working at a nursery, who invites him to come back and see her again. He knows he won’t go back, but not because she’s married—it’s because she “seemed much too grown-up” for him. He goes on to talk about how in those days he “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—counselors and Narcotics Anonymous members and such—seemed to think a job was a happy thing.
The narrator—seemingly still in fairly bad shape, even if he is sober—then describes at some length this job working at the titular Beverly Home, a hospital for the old and the infirm and also those who were “fine,” except they “couldn’t be allowed out on the street with their impossible deformities” that made “God look like a senseless maniac.” Describing one patient, our narrator almost gleefully says, “No more pretending for him! He was completely and openly a mess. Meanwhile the rest of us go on trying to fool each other.” Of another, he says, “It wasn’t his physical condition that kept him here, but his sadness”—and given the number of times variants on the word “sadness” appear in this story, it is impossible for this observation to not also reflect back upon our narrator, whose problems in this time are more spiritual or psychological than physical, more of the past than of the future.
Tellingly, in a story that uses four fragmentary, non-linear bits of narrative to start its movement, Johnson segues out of the first long passage describing Beverly Home and into the next part of the story without such a break: He moves uninterrupted from the “magisterial sadness” of that last patient to his narrator’s replacement addiction, a home in east Phoenix where he stands on tiptoe to watch a possibly-Mennonite woman sing in the shower, singing “with the unconsciousness, the obliviousness, of a castaway,” suggesting that this experience outside of Beverly Home also fits among the descriptions of the deformities within it. Here we also see a perfect example of the way that Johnson takes the transcendence of this already-questionable moment—the narrator feels “weightless” while peeping, hovering there with his chin about the windowsill—and undercuts it with the narrator’s criminal thoughts:
She toweled off quickly, briskly, never touching herself in any indulgent or particularly sensual way. That was disappointing. But it was virginal and exciting, too. I had thoughts of breaking through the glass and raping her. But I would have been ashamed to have her see me. I thought I might be able to do something like that if I were wearing a mask.
Later the narrator tells us about dating a woman he describes as a “dwarf,” saying that the television always played when they made love, because he “was afraid to make love to her without the conversation and laughter from that false universe playing in our ears”: “I didn’t want to get to know her very well, and didn’t want to be bridging any silences with our eyes.”
And yet, despite these many flaws and character defects, one of the great accomplishments of Jesus’ Son is the ways in which we are made to love this nameless narrator, in all his monstrous beauty: He is funny and charming and (I imagine) good-looking in a certain kind of way, and in his speech he is capable of gorgeous turns of phrase and seemingly-deep insights—even if those insights rarely better his life, in the way we sometimes hope insight might.
In the end, I believe we know too much of who he really is (or at least who he has been) to love this narrator in any way but by loving him as a junkie first: by loving him even while accepting that he is likely going to backslide, that despite his moments of overwhelming honesty he is sometimes lying to us, that he is likely to disappoint us again and again. Even if our narrator never uses drugs again that will not stop him from being a junkie in other ways. There is no fundamental change being offered here that will completely shift the balance in his personality: through most of the book he is truly cruel in his interactions with others (he holds a mother to her apartment floor at gunpoint; he does handfuls of pills while working in an emergency room; he lies about getting a vasectomy to his girlfriend on the way to getting an abortion, telling her that her unborn child belongs to someone else; he punches another girlfriend in the stomach outside a motel), and there is nothing to suggest that the worst of this sort of behavior has ended completely. Rather it seems more likely that it has merely receded, even from his perspective: While watching the Mennonite woman through her window—something he does so often that he frequently misses his bus home—he says, “How could I do it, how could a person go that low? And I understand your question, to which I reply, Are you kidding. That’s nothing. I’d been much lower than that. And I expected to see myself do worse.”
So if not redemption, then what are we offered there at the end, in those famous last lines, and what does the narrator find at Beverly Home? Shortly before the end, he tells us, “I felt about the circular hallway of Beverly Home as about the place where, between our lives on this earth, we go back to mingle with other souls waiting to be born.” This isn’t an image of redemption—it’s not heaven—but of a kind of near-reincarnation, and as such it has a different connotation: The narrator isn’t imagining that he might be saved, but that he might have a chance to try again. Beverly Home has become the place just before life, a place where he imagines he is “waiting to be born” (note, not “reborn”), a chance perhaps not even to start again—but rather at last to start from. He hasn’t actually started yet, perhaps never will, but there is a kind of hope here, and in a world as difficult as ours—and with our own actions and thoughts often revealing us to also be some variety of beautiful monster, as Johnson’s narrator’s actions and thoughts so often do—hope might be all we can reasonably expect. It is thanks to Johnson’s great restraint that Jesus’ Son ends not in the fulfillment of that hope, but merely in the presence of its promise, held there in “that place for people like us.” “I was getting my looks back,” our narrator says, “and my spirits were rising, and this was all in all a happy time for me”—and we might presume that this valuation includes his weaknesses too, his bad behaviors and backslidings. And yet in the presence of his worst qualities, still some happiness, still some hope. It’s more than some of us ever get. It’s more than enough.
Matt Bell is the author of Cataclysm Baby, a novella, and How They Were Found, a collection of fiction. His stories have been selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2010 and Best American Fantasy 2. He is the Senior Editor at Dzanc Books, where he also runs the literary magazine The Collagist, and in the fall he will join the creative writing faculty at Northern Michigan University.