Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, book of a lifetime: 'A mortal sort of combat'

Austin Duffy can remember exactly where he was when he first read Johnson's short masterpiece

Austin Duffy
Thursday 17 March 2016 14:20 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The cliché with celebrity deaths – remembering exactly where you were when you heard about them – does not, I don't think, apply to books. For Ayrton Senna's sudden end, I can locate myself in the kitchen of my parent's house in Dundalk, Ireland, recalling the stunned silence that surrounded us. Not so with books, which for me seem never to be anchored in time and place. Of all the ones I've read, I struggle to name the country, year, maybe even decade I was in at the time, much less any specific situation or locale.

The exception being Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson. March 2009. Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle, Washington DC, where I killed time before meeting a friend for dinner. I'd moved there four months previously to work at the National Cancer Institute. My friend arrived in Kramers and asked me what was wrong. I struggled to recognise her, I could barely speak, Johnson's short masterpiece in my hands. The first story where a drug addict hitches a lift and is caught in a car crash in torrential biblical rain. The writing masterly, a narrative voice from down low but also on high, relating stories of junkies, something religious about them, like lost prophets, shorn of God itself.

At the time, I was in the early stages of considering myself a writer. Johnson's book begged to differ, called out my vanity, and none too politely. He was playing a different sport and playing it for keeps, it seemed to me like a mortal sort of combat, screaming at me that what I myself was writing was a total waste of time.

Dinner afterwards has not stayed with me, but I'm sure my friend did all the talking. I walked home disheartened, but the next morning got to it, earlier, merciless with myself, bloodyminded. I carry a copy of it around. Six months ago, I was on an internal flight in the States. A man who sold commercial real estate chatted amiably to me as we taxied. His tone changed when I produced my crumpled Jesus' Son. He looked at the title and turned away from me, shaking his head. "Is that what they're saying now," he said, "that He had one?" He didn't say another word for the rest of the flight. There are, I take it, different ways to be shook. He had his and I had mine.

Austin Duffy's novel, 'This Living and Immortal Thing' is published by Granta

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