Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

A collection of short stories about drifters, drug addicts and life on the margins. Jesus’ Son is both about the falling down and the getting back up of life. Before we recognized the opioid crisis as a crisis and before we sympathized with addicts, Jesus’ Son gave a human perspective to those that suffer from addiction. The book feels ahead of its time in this way.

I really didn’t care about the characters in this book. The stories were fine and interesting, but overall, I wasn’t interested in what happened to them. Part of it is that this book feels overwhelmingly White and male. The point of view, the insights, and the issues all felt like shock and awe for White people, but missed the fact that many Black and Brown people are constantly living at the margins without as much sympathy, let alone books devoted to the quirk of their day to day lives.

I couldn’t help but see Johnson’s ability to tell this story as a part of his own privilege. He gets to tell the stories of this specific group of users, instead of having to be responsible for all people who have ever been addicted. It is a great thing for an artist to be able to do, though I wonder if a Black author’s work would have been granted that kind of singularity.

Jesus’ Son is a well crafted collection, sparse in words but big in feeling. Johnson is a fantastic writer with a unique style. He creates short sentences that pack a huge punch. While there were moments of great emotional resonance, this book wasn’t for me, in the end, I just didn’t care about the people in the stories.

I know many people consider this book to be a modern classic, and one of the greatest books of the last few decades. I am not one of those people. Author Dave Cullen (Columbine, Parkland) however is, and you can hear us discuss this book on the podcast:

Ep.66 Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson — The Stacks Book Club (Dave Cullen)

If you’ve read this book and enjoyed it, I’d love to hear your thoughts, share them in the comments below.

  • Paperback: 133
  • PublisherPicador; First edition (February 17, 2009)
  • 2/5 stars
  • Buy Jesus’ Son Amazon or IndieBound

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