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