Small books cast a religious hold on their devotees. The repeat reader experiences something close to transference — he puts the book in the pocket of his jacket, feels its reassuring, blocky heft and thinks of all the fellow seekers who, in a fit of sentimentality and vanity, wore the same book as body armor. This is a silly exercise, sure, but it’s as close to an expressed spirituality that any of us come these days.
I have six or seven copies of Jesus’ Son on my bookshelves and a digital copy on my phone. They were collected over the past fifteen years and served a variety of tasks — when I was twenty-three and trying, like so many depressed twenty-three year olds in MFA programs, to write a “book of connected short stories,” I would carry Jesus’ Son with me to the Hungarian Pastry Shop on 110th and Amsterdam. Sitting at the wobbly tables in the back which had been shimmed with filthy, folded napkins, I would prop open Jesus’ Son between my knees and quickly take in the first pages of “Two Men” before diving back into my own, derivative work. The book, I admit, embarrassed me — I was always surrounded by better, older writers and I worried they wouldn’t take me seriously if they saw me reading the canonical text of all young, angry men. But there was a looseness and a lucidity in those lines that made Raymond Carver and Thom Jones — my other literary heroes at the time — feel deliberate and almost ornate and I wanted to write like that.
I met the first man I was going home from a dance at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall. I was being taken out of the dance by my two good friends. I had forgotten my friends had come with me, but there they were. Once again, I hated the two of them. The three of us had formed a group based on something erroneous, some basic misunderstanding that hand’t yet come to light, and so we kept on in one another’s company, going to bars and having conversations.
I liked Jesus’ Son for all the usual reasons — the shocking, tough lines like “If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that” and “Talk into my bullet hole. Tell me I’m fine,” the absurd humor in stories like “Emergency” and “Work,” and, perhaps most importantly, the false promise that there was some beautiful absolution for all of us who sat in bars with people we hated and spent our days caught up in all the narcissistic, banal tasks of addiction. Two years after my days at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, when all my literary ambitions had been set aside for a doomed gambling career, I would sometimes bring a different copy of Jesus’ Son to the Commerce Casino in south Los Angeles and flip idly through it while losing my paycheck to my fellow degenerates. It made the rut feel a bit more glamorous. This is a misreading, sure, but the power of small books comes from just how wildly they can be misread.
Over the next few days of online memorialization, I’m sure there will be a resistance to reducing Johnson down to the 130 pages of Jesus’ Son. There will be formal arguments made for Tree of Smoke or Train Dreams, perhaps even the odd defense of the hallucinatory, lobotomized energy that runs through Fiskadoro. If these writers are anything like me, their takes will come, in part, from an uneasiness about what it might mean that Jesus’ Son occupies an almost religious hold on your life; what it might signal about your inability to let go of those days of pious self-destruction.
Small books are also supposed to be for the very young and very earnest. Their hold — the transference I mentioned before — comes from the fact that we can’t ever quite outgrow them, at least not in any honest way. Our understanding of literature, I think, usually gets built out of what small books best aligned with our juvenile vanities, so when we write about any other work of literature, we are subconsciously holding it up to our youthful sensibilities. (Janet Malcolm, for example, has never really stopped writing about Sylvia Plath and JD Salinger.) There are two generations now of young people who have the same relationship with Denis Johnson and Jesus’ Son, who woke up this morning and flipped straight to the final page and read, “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”