Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son” and my protestations at the alleged death of the short story

This is one of the seminal short story collections of the last few years (or, as some less charitable critics might put it, one of the last dying gasps of the short story as a culturally relevant artistic medium). I’ve been consistently impressed with Denis Johnson’s work, but, on account of never finding “Jesus’ Son” at a used bookstore, I’d never gotten to this heavy hitter. I finally broke down and ordered it from Powell’s. Good move. These stories are deeply interconnected, sharing, if not a specifically same narrator, then a shared narrative voice, a troubled young man, addicted to substances, prone to the melodramatic  sentimentality of alcoholism and the rambling narration of serious substance abuse. This is not an indictment; the stories are made more powerful by the obfuscation and unreliability of their circumstance, a distilled narrative always skipping in media res. Every word counts.

I was reminded a lot of Thom Jones as I read this particular collection -a connection I’ve never felt with any of Johnson’s other work. The two men were contemporaries. “Jesus’ Son” was published the year after “The Pugilist at Rest”. I have no idea if the two influenced each other in any way, (I doubt it -the logistics seem unlikely) but I’m sure they both drew on the same kind of literary inspiration. There’s a lot of Raymond Carver in here, the further evolution of Dirty Realism that moved away from Hemingway starkness into more direct narratives, no less meticulously constructed for their more built-up sense of narrative.  

Short stories don’t have the same mass appeal as they have enjoyed in the past. This isn’t a particularly revelatory sentiment, but I’ve always wondered why. Much of our most popular media is shrinking -witness the bite-size appeal of shorter and shorter articles online, the growing popularity of “list-icles”, YouTube videos, and so forth. Why don’t short stories have their place here? People aren’t afraid of reading, (reports of the Death of the Novel continue to be greatly exaggerated) so why don’t people give a shit about short fiction? Perhaps everyone got put off by the overly-understated stylings (for the general reader) of Carver and Tobias Wolff. Don’t get me wrong -I love that stuff. But I also think it’s not nearly as interesting for people who aren’t writers themselves. Denis Johnson and Thom Jones, on the other hand? If we can get people to pick them up, they might discover that it isn’t short stories they dislike, just a particular subspecies.

Recommendation: Read it. Evangelize it. The short story is dead. Long live the short story!

Jesus’ Son
by Denis Johnson

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