Denis Johnson’s book Jesus’ Son portrays single serving slices of what it means to be alive. According to this provocative collection of short stories, there is more to being alive than simply breathing and eating. This examination is relayed to the reader in terms of altered states of consciousness, jaded recollections and sexual fascinations.
In some of the stories, Johnson’s unnamed protagonist comes close to eloquently depicting the quintessential essence of life. Yet there are also times in the book when the main character’s outlook on life is noticeably sarcastic, morbid and morose. These odd moments of clarity are surprisingly off beat.
Although Johnson attempts a serious glance at the true meaning of being alive, the main character is often preoccupied with the trivialities of life. Characters come and go throughout the book and Johnson’s protagonist seems to regard them with little concern at all. Their lives seem to pass like a picture show before his eyes, lacking any real substance and consequence. In the story “Steady Hands at Seattle General”, the main character asks Bill if he’s still alive in the deeper, spiritual sense of the word. Bill replies that “it don’t get no deeper than the kind of shit we’re in right now.” (131). Perhaps at this point, the reader can surmise that the main character will delve further into this intellectual puzzle, but Johnson pulls back. Instead he compares the deeper sense of being alive with the stark reality of being on drugs at a hospital. Denis Johnson seems to be toying with the idea at this point. He never quite pulls the trigger.
Throughout the book, Johnson expresses a fixation on the existential triviality of being alive. This book reads more like a philosophical discussion that the reader is invited to eavesdrop on. Overall, I love the lack of rules and conventions in this book. It’s challenging and therefore, a great read. In the year 2000 the book was adapted into a movie and was brilliantly directed by Alison Maclean.