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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Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy

The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here

When I heard about Dopesick by Beth Macy, I was so excited. This is the kind of book I just love, investigative journalism meets profiles of drug abusers meets cover up by big business, meets politics meets the healthcare system meets current events. This book has all the things I love reading about. If you’re not familiar with this book here is a quick blurb:

Beth Macy takes us into the epicenter of America’s twenty-plus year struggle with opioid addiction. From distressed small communities in Central Appalachia to wealthy suburbs; from disparate cities to once-idyllic farm towns; it’s a heartbreaking trajectory that illustrates how this national crisis has persisted for so long and become so firmly entrenched.

Beginning with a single dealer who lands in a small Virginia town and sets about turning high school football stars into heroin overdose statistics, Macy endeavors to answer a grieving mother’s question-why her only son died-and comes away with a harrowing story of greed and need. From the introduction of OxyContin in 1996, Macy parses how America embraced a medical culture where over treatment with painkillers became the norm. In some of the same distressed communities featured in her bestselling book Factory Man, the unemployed use painkillers both to numb the pain of joblessness and pay their bills, while privileged teens trade pills in cul-de-sacs, and even high school standouts fall prey to prostitution, jail, and death.

This book is telling the story of the heroin/opiate addiction that runs rampant in this country, and in this book specifically in Virginia. It is a compassionate look at the individual lives touched by these drugs and a also a searing indictment on the big pharma companies and government agencies that allowed it to get out of control. I think this book is important in the stories it tells, and only wish that other drug addicts and families got the same compassion and understanding the the victims of the opioid epidemic invariably seem to get.

Macy’s writing style is verbose to say the least, there are sentences that are filled with so many commas and dashes that I found myself having to reread them to figure out what she was talking about. As far as investigative journalism goes, this style is not what you tend to see. Macy inserts herself in the book, which is a trend I’ve noticed in two other works of investigative journalism published this year (Bad Blood by John Carreyrou and To The Bridge by Nancy Rommelmann). I don’t feel that Macy needed to be an outright voice in this book, nor do I understand her choice to be one. It didn’t take away from Dopesick, nor did it add anything.

I learned a lot about OxyContin, heroin, methadone, fentanyl, a slew of other opiate drugs and the effects they have on a human body while reading Dopesick. I found myself constantly looking up from the book and asking my husband (who is a doctor) if he knew this or that, if he’d ever prescribed OxyContin, if he’d dealt with babies born addicted to opiates. The book excited my love of learning. Like most addictions, the stigma around heroin/opiate use prevents a lot of information from getting out to the world, and Macy’s work exposes the dark secrets we don’t hear about. Like the mother who takes the doors of the hinges to prevent her son from doing drugs in the house. All the things that people who aren’t connected to this kind of addiction would never see.

Macy is thorough in her research and reporting on this drug crisis. Her politics and perspectives are very much present in the book, and she even shares some of her opinions point blank (around drug treatment policy, the current President and his administration). I wish she would have pushed back on some of the racism and racial double standards we find through out the book and on the topic of drug use in America, in general. There was certainly more room for questioning and dissecting the politics around a book like this. Why is the main drug dealer in this story Black? Why is he described as a predator?

As I read the book, I kept asking myself, if we know that drug addiction alters brains, and changes humans, how come we’re only willing to extend the benefit of understanding to White kids and their families? Where are the compassionate profiles that examine addiction in theBlack and Brown communities? The book isn’t to blame for this, but it does highlight the second chances that White heroin addicts are given by law enforcement, the courts, doctors, and the community at large. That is what frustrates me most about the opioid epidemic and the way it has been prioritized in American political and popular culture.

Overall I suggest this book, if you’re OK with some of the more graphic and emotional details that come with drug addiction and overdoses. The book is a pretty heavy read, and the subject is upsetting. There is a lot to learn from reading this book. Trigger warning for those who are dealing with opiate addiction in their own life in any capacity.

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1st Edition edition (August 7, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Dopesick on Amazon

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.