Two of the wildest stories listed in the long list of One Story’s recent list of top ten favorite short stories are from Denis Johnson’s cult classic Jesus’ Son. The name of this collection comes from the Lou Reed song, Heroin.
“When I’m rushing on my run, And I feel just like Jesus’ Son…”
I had read this collection about five years ago. The first story in the collection, Car Crash while Hitchhiking, was the one story that haunted me the most, but the two stories that made the One Story long list are Work and Emergency. I re-read both this week as part of my summer project to read all of the stories on the One Story List.
In Work, the first person narrator is on a three day heroin bender at the Holiday Inn with his girlfriend when they get into a fight. He leaves her and heads to a bar where his friend Wayne says he has some work. They take a car to an abandoned building by the river and start ripping the copper wiring out of the walls. As they are finishing up their hard work, they look out at the river and see a red-headed woman up in the sky. She is being pulled by a boat and is strapped in to a giant kite.
“She was delicate and white, and naked except for her beautiful hair.”
“Now that is a beautiful sight,” Wayne said.
After they finish their work, Wayne asks the narrator to drive him to a house. He knocks on the door and the red head comes out on the porch and talks privately to Wayne for a few minutes. They return to the bar to find their favorite female bartender and are happy with the cash they made.
“We had money. We were grimy and tired. Usually we felt guilty and frightened, because there was something wrong with us, and we didn’t know what it was; but today we had the feeling of men who had worked.”
Despite his drug ravaged life and the poor decisions he’s made, the narrator is able to look back at moments of relative happiness and fulfillment. It’s sad, though at the same time uplifting. The sight of the beautiful woman in the sky as they struggle to make a few dollars in the ruins is powerful imagery. I loved this story.
In Emergency, the narrator and his friend, another orderly named Georgie, are popping pills while working in a hospital. Georgie is mopping up the floor when we first meet him.
“Jesus, there’s a lot of blood there,” he complained.
“Where?” The floor looked clean enough to me.
The narrator and Georgie are tripping throughout the whole story. A man named Terence Weber comes in to the emergency room with a knife sticking out of his eye. Due to the delicate location of the knife, the staff starts calling to bring the best surgical team in. As everyone is making preparations for the surgery, Georgie emerges from the patient’s room holding the knife. While high, he’s gone and simply pulled the knife out of the man’s eye and the man recovers.
Later, the two men go out for a car ride to enjoy the psychedelic landscape. They hit a rabbit and Georgie realizes the rabbit is pregnant. He slices her open and takes out the babies. The narrator sticks them in his shirt to provide warmth but they all die.
In the end, they pick up a hitchhiker named Hardee who is AWOL and heading for Canada. Georgie offers to drive him up to the border. This sets up the famous last line,
After a while, Hardee asked Georgie, “What do you do for a job,” and Georgie said, “I save lives.”
This story a great use of an unreliable narrator. You can’t trust anything he tells you due to the drugs. Johnson's use of the drug experience to explore the subconscious makes for a thrilling ride.
I stumbled onto this youtube clip of Jack Black playing Georgie in a video version of the story.
If you are a short story fan, I definitely recommend this classic collection, Jesus' Son.