Jesus' Son

Elizabeth Winston

Oct 27, 2011

I arrived in Houston on the night of the fourth of July, after driving for four days - my partner, our sixteen-year-old dog, two cats, and I wedged into the car with suitcases and potted plants - from Massachusetts, where I'd lived for twelve years. I won't miss the endless winters, months when the sky is dark and low for weeks on end and it's too cold to leave the house, or the lack of spring. Where we lived, in a tiny year-round community on the tip of Cape Cod, the trees stayed bare until June, then shed their leaves again a few months later. I do miss the fall, though - the wind, the closing in of winter and the feeling of solitude that comes with it. Someone once said to me that fall has a stronger smell than any other season. I love hot weather, but coming from the northeast it's hard to remember that it's November when it's eighty degrees outside. On the few cool, windy days we've had recently I've smelled a little bit of something like fall in the air, but it's easy to miss. I lived for a few years in Puerto Rico, where the temperature stayed pretty much the same for most of the year. There was still a cycle of nature: Most flowering things bloomed in the spring, and fruit ripened in the summer, but the changes of season were subtle. The first beastly hot month in Houston, having no work and knowing no one in the city, I stayed mostly indoors and tried to catch up on the reading list that I'd sadly neglected in the past few years. Among other things, I re-read Denis Johnson's collection Jesus' Son. He doesn't do much in the way of describing setting, unless it directly pertains to the movements of the characters, and it's mostly a seasonless book, save for a few scenes like the narrator stumbling on a drive-in movie theater in a snowstorm and mistaking the speaker stands for grave markers and the ghostly figures on the screen for angels (in "Emergency"), and brief allusions like this one, from "The Other Man":
This man was just basically one of those people on a boat, leaning on the rail like the others, his hands dangling over like bait. The day was sunny, unusual for the Northwest Coast. I'm sure we were all feeling blessed on this ferryboat among the humps of very green - in the sunlight almost coolly burning, like phosphorous ¬- islands, and the water of inlets winking in the sincere light of day, under a sky blue and brainless as the love of God, despite the smell, the slight, dreamy suffocation, of some kind of petroleum-based compound used to seal the deck's seams.
Somehow I'd never owned a copy of this book, in spite of my love for it, and bought a used copy as soon as we arrived in Texas. The starkness and simplicity of Johnson's descriptions always strikes me anew when I reread these stories. In the first story of the collection, "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," he writes,
Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn't know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That's what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I've gone looking for that feeling everywhere.
My own descriptions tend to ramble on, especially in regards to setting, so Johnson's economy of words and the way he connects them to emotion always inspires me. Apropos of that, I'll end with the final lines of Jesus' Son: "All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us."