Saturday, May 30, 2015

Pro-Youthful Indiscretions

"That world! These days it's all been erased and they've rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?"

This world, rolled up and put away, is the one of hard core hippie drug use from the late 1960s described so elegiacally in Denis Johnson's weird gem of a novel, Jesus Son. The novel (published in 1992, many years after the Woodstock Utopia dream puffed out its last cloud of highfalutin swag joy) is barely that: it's a collection of interconnected stories centering around the experiences of an unreliable narrator, never quite named, but known in some circles as Fuckhead. He scores drugs, makes out with girls, gets in trouble, works low-wage graveyard shifts, and hitchhikes around the Midwest. Our vision of ultra-sixties sinning rarely veers towards small town Kansas street corners, but the fact it does here makes the stories all the more special.

Besides the fact stories like "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" and "Emergency" feature irresponsible narcotics use, Jesus Son is not for everyone due to its resistance to narrative conventions. It's about Fuckhead and his journey from young adult screwup to rehabilitating himself and getting a job and maybe a girlfriend. The prose is gorgeous, pointed, true, and epigrammatic. Describing his buddy on his court date: "He'd looked in his lawyer's eyes and fathomed it would be a short trial." Our narrator on leaving the TV on during casual sex: "But I was afraid to make love to her without the conversations and laughter from that false universe playing in our ears, because I didn't want to get to know her very well, and didn't want to be bridging any silences with our eyes." And Fuckhead on the diaspora of his drug buddies, either dying off or getting clean, but the good times as they knew them gone: "Sometimes what I wouldn't give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9am telling lies to one another, far from God."

Perhaps the best story in the collection does not concern drugs at all, but Fuckhead making a go at reality in suburban Arizona. His days are filled with Narcotics Anonymous meetings and he works at Beverly Home, a hospital for the aged and infirm, caring for patients whose deformities "made God look like a senseless maniac." Besides writing their monthly newsletter, he makes them feel human by sharing with them his smile, his charisma, and his capacity to listen. He dates a dwarf and later a cripple, meanwhile falling in love with a woman's mellifluous voice on his bus route. She sings in the shower and every day he stops to listen. He grows braver, risking more to see and hear. He realizes she and her husband are Mennonites, a conservative splinter group of Christianity famous for its Old World traditions. He spies her naked and hopes to catch her making love, but instead discovers the couple quarreling. It is nighttime and the woman flings the curtain aside with the narrator below on the other side of the window: "My face wasn't two feet from hers, but it was dark out and she could only have been looking at her own reflection, not at me... I thought I heard her weeping. I could have touched a teardrop, I stood that close." But the husband approaches her with contrition, offering to wash her feet and she for a moment resists accepting his move: "She didn't move for a while, not perhaps for a full minute, which seemed like a very long time to me outside in the dark with a great loneliness and the terror of a whole life not yet lived, and the TVs and garden sprinklers making the noises of a thousand lives never to be lived, and the cars going by with the sound of passage, movement, untouchable, uncatchable."

I suppose you call call Jesus Son a coming-of-age book. Youth is a folly but the great folly for the young might be not getting into enough trouble. "The cards were scattered on the table, face up, face down, and they seemed to foretell that whatever we did to one another would be washed away by liquor or explained away by sad songs." Perhaps we can learn about ourselves best while doing our worst. The poetry of youth is written in our errors. As important as an education is no one writes a beautiful song about straight A's. We have time enough to be wise and careful and if we're lucky, many years to look back. Perhaps the hero of Jesus Son took his sprint through the darkness a bit far, but his survival made him a better man. I've long traded on my own youthful catastrophes as good storytelling, having learned that while life gives and takes, you're often lucky enough for second chances. And what they say about sadness being integral to understanding happiness might hold true for the inner peace of growing old. It's possible that there is nothing truly to regret save for having not lived. Live and learn, your elders tell you. Truth.

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