“Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine”: Searching for light in Jesus’ Son

This article contains a synopsis of sorts, which means there are some mild “spoilers.” Page numbers are from the Picador Modern Classics edition, published in 2015.

Jesus' Son book cover

A masterpiece of twentieth-century literature, Jesus’ Son (1992) by Denis Johnson is a semiautobiographical collection of loosely linked short stories narrated by a twenty-something male drug addict named F***head (“FH” for short). The book, set in the early 1970s, has nothing to do with a holy bloodline; its title refers to two lines from the Lou Reed song “Heroin,” which are given as the epigraph:

When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’ Son . . .

FH’s drug-induced escapades constitute the main narrative, which meanders through vignettes that are by turns mundane, repulsive, darkly comic, or just pathetic. Some of the events, like Georgie’s acts of life-saving heroism, are likely hallucinated (FH’s narration is unreliable). But over all the depravity, boredom, and pain that feature prominently in the book, a subtle through line of redemption winds haphazardly, as FH searches for spiritual purpose and connection, for someone “who knew my real name” (111).

Part of this search involves his struggle to overcome the emotional numbness that prevents him from feeling both happiness and pain. In the opening story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” a married couple traveling with their infant picks up FH on the side of the road and soon after collides with an oncoming car. At the hospital, FH twistedly muses on how “wonderful” and radiant the newly widowed woman’s wail is:

Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere. (12)

FH feels completely detached from the woman’s grief and yet envious of it—a grief so raw, so real. He wishes he could feel as deeply as her.

This desire to feel something, anything, is what attracts him to the passionate Michelle, who so often sweeps him up into her passion, whether it be angry or romantic. Their relationship is volatile:

When we were arguing on my twenty-fourth birthday, she left the kitchen, came back with a pistol, and fired it at me five times from right across the table. But she missed. It wasn’t my life she was after. It was more. She wanted to eat my heart and be lost in the desert with what she’d done, she wanted to fall on her knees and give birth from it, she wanted to hurt me as only a child can be hurt by its mother. (116)

FH’s desperate pursuit of aliveness leads him to drugs, under whose influence he receives visions—a naked woman parasailing (embodying pure freedom), a mysterious man on the subway whose “chest was like Christ’s” (“I decided to follow him,” 108), and a Jacob’s ladder:

We bumped softly down a hill toward an open field that seemed to be a military graveyard, filled with rows and rows of austere identical markers over soldiers’ graves. I’d never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there’d been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.

Georgie opened his arms and cried out, “It’s the drive-in, man!”

“The drive-in . . .” I wasn’t sure what these words meant.

“They’re showing movies in a f***ing blizzard!” Georgie screamed.

“I see. I thought it was something else,” I said. (91–92)

Jesus' Son (graveyard scene)
Billy Crudup as FH in Jesus’ Son (1999)

Visions like this transport FH to a higher plane, making him feel momentarily connected to something larger than himself. And he continues to crave that connection, as does his friend Georgie, who states at one point, “I want to go to church. . . . I’d like to worship. I would. . . . I need a quiet chapel about now” (85–86). (They go to the county fair instead.) 

FH realizes that drugs ultimately leave him feeling empty. On his way down Old Highway to a crack house (in the story “Two Men”), the narration has a metaphoric ring: “I’d been out this road more than once, a little farther every time, and I’d never found anything that made me happy” (19). He wants to experience blessing, but it continues to elude him. After getting kicked out of an abortion clinic, for example, he says that “the Catholics . . . splashed holy water on my cheek and on the back of my neck, and I didn’t feel a thing. Not for many years” (107). Those water-bearers cast on him tangible prayers for protection and cleansing, but he wasn’t yet ready to receive either.

Jesus’ Son very subtly suggests FH’s gradual turning toward God. It does this in part through his repeated encounters, through a window, with a beautiful married Mennonite woman who sings hymns in the shower, unaware of his presence. What starts out at first as voyeuristic spying on her nakedness becomes something more pure-hearted as he turns his gaze to the couple’s daily routine together, finding himself inexplicably drawn to their “reading the Bible, saying grace, eating their supper in the kitchen alcove . . .” (152) Their quiet love for one another, their faith in God, and just the normalcy of their day-to-day lives impress him in a way he can’t shake off. (More on this below.)

The final story, to which the Mennonite storyline belongs, finds FH working at a home for the disabled, on the road to sobriety. He describes Beverly Home as the place just before life, where souls are “waiting to be born” (126)—himself among them. The book doesn’t end with unequivocal conversion or resolution but on a path to it. It strikes a note of hope for sure. As reviewer Keith Witty says, “It is difficult to write happiness. And in the end I’m not sure Johnson does as much as he gives his character the space to end up happy somewhere off the final page.” Jay Irwin echoes that sentiment, stating that “FH’s epiphany is not a final redemption, or cosmic point of rest, but a road, suddenly clear, leading onto a much longer pilgrimage of repentance.”

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Jesus' Son movie poster

In 1999 a film adaptation of Jesus’ Son was released, directed by Alison Maclean from a screenplay by Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia, and Oren Moverman. Billy Crudup stars as FH, and the supporting cast includes Samantha Morton, Jack Black, Denis Leary, Dennis Hopper, and Holly Hunter. It’s a brilliant adaptation, and I daresay I like it even more than the book. (I wasn’t immediately sure after the first watch; my estimation of it grew a lot upon further reflection and a second watch.) Jesus’ Son is a difficult work to adapt—it’s not plot-driven, and although there are a few great pieces of dialogue to work with (not least of which is “Talk into my bullet hole. Tell me I’m fine.”), it’s the beautifully constructed prose, which is inside the narrator’s mind, that makes the book so celebrated. Furthermore, it’s a collection of short stories, not a novel, so work had to be done to unify the disparate elements. The screenwriters more than surmounted these challenges in translating Jesus’ Son to the screen, paying a terrific homage to the source material.

Like the book, the movie is circuitous—but it’s tidier than the book. While the episodes do not unfold linearly, the timeline is easier to follow, and some of the characters are consolidated. One smart choice was to use Michelle, FH’s girlfriend, as a connective device. She’s given much more prominence in the movie, and her relationship with FH is made central, which does tilt the story type a bit more toward love story, but “redemption tale” still remains foremost. (Of the eleven stories in the book, only one, “Dirty Wedding,” mentions Michelle by name, and with no suggestion that she was long-term; in a few others FH refers generically to his “girlfriend” or even, in passing, his “wife.”) Michelle’s abortion has more of an impact here; whereas it ends their relationship in the book, in the movie, it incites guilt in FH, which manifests in a later meeting with her, where he tells her heroically that he “saved the baby”—a baby who was caught in a wreck on the road, that is.

FH is more likeable in the movie, due partly to Crudup’s endearing portrayal, and partly to the removal of some of the character’s more reprehensible lines and actions. In the book, for example, after Michelle’s abortion, FH tells the nurse, “I kind of wish she was [dead]” (106). Johnson’s FH is violent toward women, as when he holds a mother to her apartment floor at gunpoint in front of her children, punches his girlfriend in the stomach, and fantasizes about rape and says he would carry it out if he had a mask. Also, the movie suggests that FH’s descent into hard drugs is due mainly to Michelle’s corrupting influence, not to his own listlessness, which makes him more of a sympathetic victim. One might say this softening of FH undercuts the redemption theme, but I consider it an acceptable move. (I strongly disliked the protagonist in the book, which made it a struggle to continue reading. I just could not love him like Johnson loves him—which may speak more to my own uncharitable character.) Adorable though he is in the movie, he’s still unhappy, lost, and flawed.

Jesus' Son
Film still from Jesus’ Son (1999). Cinematography by Adam Kimmel.

FH’s spiritual journey is emphasized even more in the movie, supported by a soundtrack that includes songs like “Satan Is Real” by the Louvin Brothers, “Airline to Heaven” by Wilco, and, at a significant juncture for the character, the hymn “Farther Along”:

Tempted and tried, we’re oft made to wonder
Why it should be thus all the day long
While there are others living about us,
Never molested, though in the wrong.

Farther along we’ll know more about it,
Farther along we’ll understand why;
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine,
We’ll understand it all by and by.

Sometimes I wonder why I must suffer,
Go in the rain, the cold, and the snow,
When there are many living in comfort,
Giving no heed to all I can do.

Farther along we’ll know more about it,
Farther along we’ll understand why;
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine,
We’ll understand it all by and by.

This is the song that the anonymous Mennonite woman sings around her house and that keeps bringing FH back to her window. It questions the purpose of suffering but then concedes that that purpose will be made clear somewhere “farther along” on our journey. The third line of the chorus, “Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine,” is a gentle invitation that I imagine is what most compels FH. In one visit he leans against the exterior of the house, closes his eyes, and lets the words wash over him. He longs so desperately to escape the darkness of his past deeds and his own muddled mind and to live in the light. The final scene of the movie is called “Live in the Sunshine,” and it closes out with this song.

Jesus' Son (Menonnite woman)
Film still from Jesus’ Son (1999). Cinematography by Adam Kimmel.

Not only does music help tell the story of spiritual journeying in Jesus’ Son, the movie; so do the added lines and biblical allusions. Early on in the movie FH has an encounter on the street with two Jehovah’s Witnesses, in which he muses, “Maybe living and dying are the same thing. Maybe the fact that we’ve turned them into two different things is why we feel so lost.” That rings, to my ears, with all sorts of Christian resonances that FH does not intend when he says it, thinking instead about his life on earth as a sort of waking death or nonexistence.

Later on, a woman at a bar gives FH a mushroom pill. He says it’s the biggest pill he’s ever seen. “It’s like an egg. It’s like an Easter thing.”

[Spoiler below; skip to next section to avoid]

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the one in which FH eats Michelle’s suicide note, which says, “I took some pills. Wake me if you still want me.” (FH passed out next to her, drunk and oblivious, shortly after her overdose and didn’t get the note until it was too late.) The shot is beautifully framed with FH at half-length, sitting on the bed, with Michelle’s dead body sprawled out naked on the twin bed behind him. His eating the paper is such an odd thing to do, and it instantly reminded me of Ezekiel 2:8–3:3, where God instructs Ezekiel to eat a scroll of lamentations:

“. . . son of man, hear what I say to you. Be not rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.” And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and behold, a scroll of a book was in it. And he spread it before me. And it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe.

And he said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat. And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.

FH eats the “lamentation and mourning and woe” that God has given him. And paradoxically, it tastes sweet, because his being able to feel the real pain of loss affirms that he is alive—unlike at the earlier, dispassionate encounter he had with death at the beginning of the movie.

[Rent Jesus’ Son on iTunes]

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“Hunger is my native place in the land of passions.” Food for the road.—Denis

Denis Johnson wrote this inscription, a Dag Hammarskjöld quote, inside a copy of the Christian devotional Disciplines for the Inner Life that he gave to his editor, Will Blythe, to read. In Hammarskjöld’s Markings, the quote continues, “Hunger for fellowship, hunger for righteousness—for a fellowship founded on righteousness, and a righteousness attained in fellowship.”

Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson, photo © Cindy Lee Johnson

Johnson, who died of cancer in 2017, is best known for writing about life at the bottom of the barrel. Philip Roth called him “an emissary for tortured, broken souls,” and Lawrence Wright applauded his willingness “to plumb the darkest corners of his own psyche in order to honestly report on the nature of humanity.”

Because of all the depravity in his stories, some people are surprised to learn that Johnson was a professing Christian. In his 2000 Paris Review essay “Hippies,” he describes how he spent his youth as a “criminal hedonist” but later became “a citizen of life with a belief in eternity.” In “Bikers for Jesus,” he describes himself as “a Christian convert, but one of the airy, sophisticated kind.” His New York Times obituary says that “Mr. Johnson thought of himself as a Christian writer who wonders about the existence of God in a troubled world.” Both before and after he came to faith, he was spiritually hungry, and that hunger manifests in many of his characters.

“Denis believed he was personally affected by miracles,” wrote Johnson’s friend Brian B. Dille, “that God is supernaturally active in individuals’ lives in profound and unexpected ways. God saved Denis from alcoholism and addiction through Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps. . . . Substance abuse and addiction figure prominently in Denis’s fiction and plays, and he always extends to his characters the possibility of the same grace that he himself experienced.” David Means also commented on the grace that is such an important element of Johnson’s stories: “Johnson, as a religious soul, probed the deep Christian mysteries, and he understood that grace could be found through very small gestures, moments of profound clarity and simplicity, on the streets or in the bushes outside someone’s house or in the halls of a nursing home.” And Aaron Thier: “God peeks through everywhere. Infinity seeps under the doors.”

In an essay published anonymously in issue 99 of Image journal, the writer says he wanted to take Denis Johnson as his patron saint but that his church wouldn’t approve; he refers to him as Saint Denis anyway. “Saint Denis, God bless him, shows that any one of us can ascend from the hell in our hearts,” he writes. “Not one of us is lost, not even the very worst, which is to say, me and you. . . . Johnson loves his reprobates in their stupidity and hatefulness and incompetence. Not with a sentimental, put-your-kid’s-crappy-painting-on-the-refrigerator kind of love, but with a love that is fully cognizant of their shittiness. And in offering them redemption, he shows you how all the ugly people you want to write off might also be redeemed . . .” And further: “Johnson’s whole point, if you want to whittle him down that way,” was “that the worst among us are not godforsaken but godpursued.”

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Jesus’ Son, a panel of writer-fans led by Jenny Offill convened in New York City to celebrate the work. “He’s not afraid to risk going straight toward the sublime,” Offill said. Covering the event for the New York Times, John Williams said

[Victor] LaValle emphasized the way that “Jesus’ Son” — which is often, on its surface, blunt and violent — is suffused with a questing, spiritual tone. He said the stories contained an idea that he misses in much of contemporary literature, which is that “a world beyond this world is something serious to contemplate.”

Wow! That the overtones of God (however vaguely defined), grace, resurrection, etc., in Jesus’ Son resonate so strongly with readers in the so-called secular or postreligious US, and are being enthusiastically taught in college classrooms, seems to indicate that people still very much crave connection with the Divine. To read Jesus’ Son (or to watch the film adaptation) is to come face to face with human sin and the emptiness it breeds but also to catch small glimpses of the God who meets us where we’re at and calls us by our true name, welcoming us into life and light.

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