Thursday, April 30, 2009


I don't just consider the advice of humans when looking for new books to read; I also rely on the input of robots.  I do so because it has succeeded in the past.  Most famously, I picked up Catch 22 about a decade ago, based largely on a recommendation from, and it has remained one of my all-time favorite books.

I'm a big fan of Saunders, in part because he's so unique.  I noticed that Amazon regularly suggested a book called "Jesus' Son" whenever I was looking at a Saunders collection.  I had never heard of the author before, a man called Denis Johnson, but I'm up for trying something new, so on to my request list it went.

It's an interesting book.  The publication pre-dates Saunders' recent work, and it really isn't the same, but I can see why fans of one author would enjoy the other.  These stories are far less strange, both in style and in content.  Most of them were first published in The New Yorker, and it shows... I don't want to claim that there's a "typical" New Yorker short story, but more often than not their fiction pieces are about 8-10 pages long and feature a narrative slice of life focused around one slightly damaged protagonist and a small collection of supporting characters.

These stories do elevate themselves by making those characters and situations really interesting.  It's kind of boring to read about another druggie, but a druggie who predicts when he's going to get into a crash?  Or who performs a delicate operation that a doctor was afraid to touch?  That's more interesting.

The voice doesn't have any of Saunders' many forms of craziness.  There's no bureaucratic mumbo jumbo here, nor childish nattering, nor illiterate sincerity.  It does feel real, though.  The stories are told in first person, and kind of come across as a more thoughtful, reflective version of Jim Anchower from The Onion. 

One cool thing: even though each of these stories was published separately, they do share common characters.  It isn't clear to me just how much overlap there is - whether all the narrators are the same, for example - but we do get several clues that certain specific narrators are the same person, and learn in some stories about what happened to characters in other tales.  It's neat to have a new universe in a slender tome like this.

I'm still not clear about what the title "Jesus' Son" means.  (This probably wouldn't bother me nearly as much if I hadn't just gone through a similar mystifying search for the meaning of "2666.")  None of the stories has that title, and there's no reference to Jesus in any of them - for that matter, I don't think there's any explicit mention of God or religion.  So what does it mean?  Perhaps it's a reminder or a wish that all people are important to someone, even if we don't always see the evidence of it... even the most messed-up and washed-out among us are important in the grand scheme of things. 

Anyways, that's what I'm taking from it.  The book is well worth picking up - at a little over 100 pages, it's a really fast read, and should be enjoyed by any fan of modern American fiction.

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