Book Club: Jesus' Son, "Work"
Our friend Fuckhead is definitely #Problematic, now taking part in a little casual domestic violence. The first-paragraph description of him and his girlfriend getting their fixes and fucking and fighting feels lived in and real, in a sad way. Here we go again. And yet “Work” did more to show me why so many people fall in love with this book, as it balances the seediness and beauty very well. When our narrator talks about how he and his friend (coworker?) Wayne are grimy and tired, and have money, and have worked, it makes me think of the couple years I spent going from one Craigslist gig to another, chipping paint, helping people move, one day carving pumpkins and harvesting their seeds for six straight hours. I’m not much of a capitalist but there is something to be said for that feeling.
The detail that it’s Wayne’s house they’re salvaging from brought a smile to my face. It makes the little misadventure seem less prurient and more like a pathetic but sweet little quest by the two of them to scratch out a little drinking money. The delicate balancing act of this book is to maintain the seediness that makes the beauty stand out, without that seediness becoming numbing; and to maintain the beauty that emerges from the seediness, without that beauty being cheapened by repetition. Luckily Johnson’s prose continues to impress. I thought the metaphor of the city going by looking like the images in a slot machine was a little too precious, but right after that we get his “red and thoughtless mind,” which is a real palate cleanser, a salvaging if you will. The blank lyricism of “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” is hard to beat, but that story has the advantage of its extreme brevity and of opening the collection, of having no responsibility to be anything other than what it is. “Working” stretches out its legs more, goes through more development, and that suits the twisty turny and picaresque quality of the collection very well.
Could that really have been Wayne’s wife parasailing above? Was she really naked? Was there a parasailor at all? The indeterminacy of those questions is kind of what this book is about, and also why it’s not for every reader. I’m more interested in what Wayne and his wife talked about. The obvious would be to say, hey honey, uh, about this nude parasailing…. To be jealous, or shocked, or angry. But that would be too straightforward for this collection, and after all, Wayne calls it a beautiful sight. The narrator is not privy to their conversation, and neither are we, but it takes place against the backdrop of the “field” - a stretch of grass between a muddy river and a row of dilapidated houses, but described in the story as a place of beauty.
I think for a lot of people the real draw for this story is the reverie about the bartender at the end. The worship of a bartender - a woman bartender, I guess I must add - is something I can understand, the sense of feeling a shallow but real love for the person who slowly gets us bent over the course of a night. The story ends with a classic Denis Johnson stinger, one of the best I’ve ever read, a beautiful reverie to a woman he barely knows.
Reading for next time: Please read the next story, “Emergency.”
Favorite line/passage from this selection: She was about forty, with a bloodless, waterlogged beauty. I guessed Wayne was the storm that had stranded her.
Thoughts for conversation: Parasailing was invented in the late 1970s. I’m trying to figure out the timeline here, which of course is folly - I feel when reading this that Johnson is Fuckhead and the stories are of his life in the early 1970s before he got clean. But of course the book has no specific time period, really, and the narrator is not the author. All I know for sure is that this is Iowa, a mystical drugged-out Iowa of beautiful decay.
This is the first story since “Car Crash While Hitchhiking which I would recommend to someone just as a story, removed from the collection. It’s long enough to have an internal logic and payoff an several distinct acts.
Are we liking Fuckhead more? It’s hard to start the story off with him punching his girlfriend in the stomach, but the whole arc of the book endears you to him. It helps that he seems blown along through the narrative like a tumbleweed.
Is the bartender getting beaten and left behind by her husband a real future the narrative actually knows, or is it a projection that he's assuming onto her contemporaneously to the rest of the story, or is it all operating under dream logic and the truth of what he’s saying is unknowable?