Imagine a life filled with drugs, alcohol, petty crimes, casual sex, and little fear of consequences. It would be a life akin to that lived by the narrator (sometimes named Fuckhead) of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (1992). That lifestyle has drawbacks, among them a memory like a bingo blower, popping balls of experience for others to arrange into something coherent. Bingo! Johnson uses his narrator’s disjointed memory to share the pain and confusion beneath the party life addictions.
The narrator is incapable of recalling the whole story. His self-interrupting storytelling exposes the mental damage inflicted by his debauched lifestyle. He fumbles through a collection of images.
A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping…A Cherokee filled with bourbon…A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student…And a family who headonned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri…
The details in Jesus’ Son aren’t concrete but are mutable like wet clay. The narrator molds them.
[Jack Hotel] had come from the courthouse during the lunch recess. He’d looked in his lawyer’s eyes and fathomed that it would be a short trial.
Fuckhead tells Hotel’s story with conviction, as if he were in the courtroom, until another memory contradicts his original.
Suddenly I remembered that Hotel himself, or somebody connected with him, had told me weeks ago that Hotel was in trouble for armed robbery.
This recollection renders itself moot. Embedded within is the same unreliable memory, the inability to remember the source. It’s a consequence of Fuckhead’s life being so consuming he must fool himself by emphasizing the shock of remembering.
The narrator’s corrupt memory severs his experiences from reality and turns the morbid comical. Fuckhead’s associate, Georgie, hits a rabbit with his pickup, skins it, and discovers it’s pregnant. He gives the bunnies to Fuckhead for safekeeping. The two men drive and wander. They catch a movie in an abandoned drive-in theater and get caught in a snowstorm. When they return to the truck, the bunnies are dead.
Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed. Maybe it was the time we slept in the truck and I rolled over on the bunnies and flattened them. It doesn’t matter.
Does anything really happen? Fuckhead can’t say, so we can’t tell.
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