I remember the first time I found Jesus’ Son. I was living in New York State, in Saratoga, on the campus of Skidmore University and my friend Hanvi had a box of books in the back of his Monte Carlo. It was a new car but it reminded me of my Uncles Monte Carlo. Hanvi told me to pick some books out of the back and read them so we could talk about them. He had them scattered along with tire irons and his clothes he kept with no suitcase.
He opened up the tiny book and opened it up to Steady Hands at Seattle General and recited the dialogue. He told me it was such a simple, little book and yet so subtly crafted. He told me about how the book affected him and got him writing.
Now that whole time there I had only read one ofHanvi’s stories and it was about the room he rented and the woman who rented it to him and how she wouldn’t let him drink or have women over after dark. After that we drove around that summer looking for cheap diners and bars to write about and because we didn’t have very much money. I remember we stayed until closing time at this little bar playing pool and talking about the book and how we wanted to be writers. I was on scholarship and only had a certain amount of cafeteria passes so I had to plan out my meals ahead of time and couldn’t afford too many drinks. Hanvi rented his own room instead of a dorm room and also had to plan out his meals and money as well.
One afternoon while I was waiting for Hanvi to pick me up for a trip into the city I sat and read Denis Johnson’s book from cover to cover. I remember it rained often that summer and the campus of Skidmore was large and mysterious to a young kid from Colorado so I sat and read while it rained. It’s not very long and you can read it pretty much in one sitting. I was struck by the dialogue and the terse descriptions. I was surprised how much it spoke to me and reminded me of some of the kids I went to school with.
Later, when I lived in Oregon, I sat and tried to explain to professors and thesis advisers how much the book meant to me. I even brought it up in my thesis defense at the encouragement of Jennifer Cornell. I spoke on how the book made not only want to write but it made me feel it was okay to write–that stories like mine and my Tios could matter. That fuck-ups and problems in families could be art–could be learned from. I’ve researched Johnson and read most of his work since then. I’ve taught his stories to creative writing courses and offered up his writing to friends. D even told me today while in Barnes and Noble just how surprised she was she liked the book and the main character, Fuck Head, and how the stories affected her.
A few years back I read in Rollingstone Magazine how the book was one of the most authentic drug related books that had credibility and power. It told a story that happened to be about drugs instead of only being about drugs. And I am not sure why this book has affected me and moved me. Maybe it is because it speaks in a laconic voice the way the men in my family spoke. Or maybe the stories and their awkward realities match some of the crazyness I’ve experienced. Or maybe it’s how Keith Scribner described it at Oregon State–there is a hidden complexity and craft to each story that surprises you with the strength. Or maybe it is how Tracy Daugherty explained it. He said the narrator lies well underneath the author’s wisdom and storytelling technique.
But today I found a new edition–a larger version of the original paperback other than what I was introduced and I was tempted to buy it. To place another version of the book next to my couch so I could pick up from time to time as I draft but I passed up the opportunity. But I guess I’m content with thesmall copy I kept from Hanvi and never returned.