The strength of a short story may be evaluated by various quality-judgements. And, as the nomenclature suggests, short stories haven’t the time to unimpress. Fortunately, there are many routes that one may take to perform such a feat; the best-cobbled path is, however, in the same fashion as one would win the heart of a lover: intimacy. Dennis Johnson’s collection of linked short stories, Jesus’ Son, not only deeply affects the reader, but also possesses one’s soul with a devilish intimacy nearly divine in its courtship. Some might moot artistic afflatus; some might point to the rampant drug abuse. I remain nevertheless steadfast in the opinion that these slices of someone’s literary heaven exist from a mastery of craft. It may be interpreted that Johnson completes this coaxing, in part, by three forms of ingratiation: a conversational first-person-reportage narrative style, the acknowledgment of the reader with the second-person, and the Big Kiss Goodnight ending.
Johnson’s stories feel like a shifty, likely armed man in a dusty jean jacket whispering unspeakables. Whenever a shifty, likely armed man in a dusty jean jacket descries us at a social gathering and, after cornering us with his broad shoulders, proceeds to delineate to us his heaviest moments, we normally fear for our lives. Though this is often the prudent choice for those in favor of a full life, the opposite is likely our response to Jesus’ Son. Johnson earns our affections with his conversational first-person-reportage narrative style. Reportage, though often considered unliterary, is pungent with authenticity, for it most closely imitates someone speaking directly to us about one’s life. The reportage style is told using the past perfect tense, “I’d been staying at the holiday Inn with my girlfriend,” in conjunction with the simple past tense, “we made love in the bed,” often also using signifying wording, such as “I remember.” Neither does it hurt to compare one’s Holiday Inn romance with a heroin-junkie to Dante’s climb to Paradiso and the Empyrean with his truest love, Beatrice: “we…carried one another to heaven.”
What do you think about the use of the second person to acknowledge the reader? I am not certain about it, but I shall leave that up to you to decide. I trust your judgement. In any case, it certainly is personal. On the wrong day in Germany, you could get the bamboo cane for it. But, in Jesus’ Son, you understand the second person to be a term of endearment, as this usage suggests: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” Consider this supremely yarn-like confidence that Johnson unravels, after confiding in us some heavy exposition about the characters in his story Two Men: “My two friends and I went to get into my little green Volkswagen, and we discovered the man I started to tell you about, the first man, sleeping in the backseat.” Remember?
What is the Big Kiss Goodnight ending? It is what everyone wants. Moreover, it also seems to be a tactic of writers who enjoy finishing stories with a smooch of the angelic. In accordance with the aforementioned considerations as regards a short story’s incapacity to allow a moment’s somnolence, its ending might perhaps be its most important time to excite, and the stories in Jesus’ Son do not leave us blue. Indeed, each story ends with a bang.
Consider this coda at the end of a story about a less than gentle man named Dundun: “Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.” Or this uplifting bit: “Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”
Of course, this narrator had no filial connection with the barmaid about whom he is reporting, but that has never been a qualification when considering if one has been another’s mother.