BOOK REVIEW / The law of the junkie: 'Jesus' Son' - Denis Johnson: Faber, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE nearest the narrator comes to an identity is to complain about how much he hates his nickname, 'Fuckhead'. There are few clues to point the way to the real world; instead, we are presented with a series of stories told by a young man in the midst of a narcotic and alcoholic detox programme. Many involve flashbacks to a bar in downtown Iowa where he goes to score, meet other junkies and spend what money he has left on drink.

It sounds grim, but Jesus' Son (and the quote from the Velvet Underground is entirely apt) is a beautifully written exploration of the junkie's para-reality, a world where longing and aspiration walk hand in hand with shabby cruelties and unforgivable betrayals. When Michelle, the narrator's girlfriend, has an abortion, the unlovely trauma is described without excuse or apology: 'Much later I told her that I'd actually gotten a vasectomy a long time ago, and somebody else must have made her pregnant. I also

told her once that I had inoperable cancer and would soon be passed away and gone, eternally. But nothing I could think up, no matter how dramatic or completely horrible, ever made her repent or love me the way she had at first, before she really knew me.'

The moments of horror - thievings, beatings and endless deceptions and abandonments - are interspersed with revelatory snapshots of a world beyond, when the unfocused gaze of the addict suddenly alights on reality's elder sister: '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 . . . Georgie opened his arms and cried out, 'It's a drive-in, man] . . . they're showing movies in a fucking blizzard]' '

Like William Burroughs in Junky, Denis Johnson pierces through the petulance, self- pity and depravity and, without inviting us either to sympathise or condemn, offers an insight into a life where morality and laws are sacrificed to the pursuit of the next hit. Much like the religious zealot, the junkie knows that anything is permissible, for he seeks to glimpse the face of God. Ambitious, hallucinatory and perfectly poised on the edge of the chasm, this is a wonderful book.

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