Johnson's strung-out season in hell

April 07, 1993|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Staff Writer

Denis Johnson writes like a man who has trawled through the underbelly of life and is now compelled to describe every freak he came across in the muck. Thus, in this riveting collection of short stories, we're introduced to falling-down drunks, pharmaceutical opium abusers, heroin addicts, psychotics, small-time crooks, and enough losers and misfits to fill every room of the Hotel Dysfunctional in hell.

By the 11th and final tale, the lone narrator -- stabilized somewhat by Narcotics Anonymous and AA meetings, Antabuse and a steady job editing a hospital newsletter -- is nevertheless a peeping Tom who gets his kicks eyeballing a Mennonite couple.

"How could I do it, how could a person go that low?" the narrator says of his voyeurism. "And I understand your question, to which I reply, Are you kidding? That's nothing. I'd been much lower than that. And I expected to see myself do worse."

This is Mr. Johnson's fifth work of fiction. The title is taken from the old Lou Reed song "Heroin" ("When I'm rushing on my run/And I feel just like Jesus' son") and it's no surprise to learn the 43-year-old author himself led a dissolute life some years back, bedeviled in particular by a fondness for smack.

All of Mr. Johnson's stories crackle with intensity. The first ("Car Crash While Hitchhiking") opens with the narrator, drunk on bourbon and groggy from a hashish-and-pills binge, is involved as a passenger in a head-on car crash that kills a man.

Wandering around the wreck in shock and with a baby in his arms, the narrator happens upon the victim, who is still alive at this point.

"He was snoring loudly and rudely. His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every break. He wouldn't be taking many more. I knew that, but he didn't, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person's life on this earth. I don't mean that we all end up dead, that's not the great pity. I mean that he couldn't tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn't tell him what was real."

Throughout the book, the narrator (known only by an obscene nickname) drifts uneasily from one set of bleak circumstances and low-life acquaintances to the next, never quite fitting in yet never aspiring to anything better.

Perhaps the strongest selection in the book is "Emergency," which appeared in a recent volume of "Best American Short Stories."

The narrator, his mind again heavily fogged by pills, has found work in an emergency room. Early one morning, a man arrives with a hunting knife buried to the hilt in the corner of one eye.

While the hospital staff sets about marshaling a team of the finest eye doctors, brain surgeons and anesthesiologists, the narrator's equally doped-up buddy, an orderly, casually pulls the blade from the patient's eye -- with no ill effects at all.

Then the narrator and orderly set out on a nightmarish, psychedelic car trip during which they gut a pregnant rabbit and extract her babies to take with them, arrive at a drive-in showing movies during a blizzard, and pick up an AWOL soldier making a desperate run to Canada.

After reading these stories, you want to lock yourself in a room somewhere and hide under the bed, lest one of the strung-out zombies from Mr. Johnson's subconscious comes pounding on your door.

Clearly, this is a writer with dazzling talent and a voice that is not soon forgotten.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Jesus' Son."

Author: Denis Johnson.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Length, price: 160 pages, $19.

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