I've made a mock cover for Johnson's novella Train Dreams, and what could be thought of as mock covers for some of David Foster Wallace's short stories, but with these I was picturing them more in their original form, in the magazines that first published them. As full pages, like the ones that accompany fiction in The New Yorker. If you haven't read any of these stories, first off: go get Jesus' Son, and read them! The whole book is 133 pages, it won't take long, and I assure you, you'll be glad you did. Second: these descriptions may contain spoilers, but that won't matter if you've heeded my first suggestion.
The first story in the collection, "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" finds the narrator seemingly at one of his lowest points. In a blur of alcohol, pills and hashish, he (yep, you guessed it) hitchhikes up the Mid-West in a series of vehicles manned by the suppliers of his booze and drugs. Along the way, on a highway in Missouri with a family that picked him up, he's involved in a head-on collision during a rainstorm. Oddly enough, he has foreseen this crash:
I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we'd have an accident in the storm.
I didn't care. They said they'd take me all the way.Perhaps numb from the drugs, in shock from the crash, or both, the narrator wanders around the scene surveying the damage. It's this point, the aftermath of the action, that I wanted to focus on for the design. The title of the story already says "Car Crash" so I didn't want to reiterate that visually. Besides, his thoughts and reactions are much more interesting. As he passes the other car, where a man is "flung halfway out the passenger door," he describes both the vehicle and dying man with the same detached dispassion. "Moving toward the other car I began to hear rasping, metallic snores." And "He was snoring loudly and rudely. His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath." He relays the story of the man, eventually dying on the way to the hospital, very matter-of-factly. When a stopped truck driver asks if everyone is dead, he replies: "I can't tell who is and who isn't." I wanted to show the tire severed and disembodied, like a limb or body part strewn from the crash. I imagined the narrator looking down at a body, and seeing or feeling little more than he would looking down at a broken wheel. I wanted the garish background color to refer to his fried senses. To give the feeling of being so stoned, you can focus on little more than one object at a time. This story is the first thing I had ever read of Johnson's, and it immediately got me hooked. Within the first page, I knew I was going to love these stories.
"Emergency" is a few stories later, and by now the narrator is working in an ER. Possibly in slightly better shape than "Car Crash," he's still strung out on pills, which he gets from his orderly friend Georgie. One night, a man named Terence Weber comes in with a large hunting knife sticking out of his eye. While the ER staff deliberates, Georgie, stoned and guileless, shows up to the parlay after prepping the man, with the knife in his hand. He had apparently removed it himself, without incident. The narrator then begins recounting when he and Georgie (after working two doubles with only eight hours in between) drove to the state fair, got lost, ran over and killed a pregnant mother jack rabbit but saved her babies, and got stranded in a sudden blizzard. I noticed throughout this whole story, how prominent the idea of sight is. Terrence Weber can still see out of the eye that's been stabbed, but his other eye is artificial, and obviously sightless. During the snow storm, the narrator calls out "Georgie, can you see?" To which he replies, "See what? See what?" They happen upon a drive-in theater, mistaking it for a cemetery because the speakers the narrator sees look like crosses at first. "I'm starting to get my eyes back," Georgie says, as the snow dies down. Getting back to Georgie's truck, he suggests they wait to drive home until it's late. With the headlights not working, under cover of darkness "We'll be invisible." After sleeping in the truck, and waking in the morning, the narrator seems to describe what could be a moment of clarity. "I felt the beauty of the morning. I could understand how a drowning man might suddenly feel a deep thirst being quenched." When designing this one, it worked out perfectly to show one of the rabbit's ears as an open eye. But the left ear is an eye too, albeit closed. It refers to one eye having sight, and one eye sightless (Terrence Weber). It can be two different people, one person sightless, and one having suddenly found sight (the narrator's epiphany). And it can represent one person, eyes closed and sightless at first, and then suddenly opening their eyes to something (again, the epiphany, or both characters, during and then after the blizzard).
"Dirty Wedding" immediately follows "Emergency." There is never any explicit note to suggest that these stories are supposed to be in chronological order. But if this story happened after the period described in "Emergency," with it's ambiguous, but seemingly hopeful end, the narrator seems to be back in a dark place, as often happens with addiction. He describes a time in his life when he was around twenty-five or twenty-six, and enjoyed riding the El train around town in Chicago. He has accompanied his girlfriend Michelle to an abortion clinic, but is asked to leave when, after the procedure, he callously asks her "What did they stick up you?" Retreating back to his solace in the train, he happens upon a girl nodding off, and follows her to a hotel where he can score some dope. I wanted to show the narrator as a moody, brooding young man. The shapes in the composition make up the windows, and lights of an El Train, and I wanted to use the destination sign for the title. The train, aside from being the setting for much of the story, is the sanctuary the narrator uses to avoid his responsibilities. He rides it away from the clinic, and the girlfriend he's upset and abandoned, but he admits: "I felt the cancelled life dreaming after me." It also transports him to his latest chance for oblivion, the Savoy Hotel, another sanctuary, and "a bad place" where he can get high, and escape even more. But the way he describes it, it sounds more like hell than a sanctuary. "Monsters were dragging themselves up the stairs...There was a man with a tall black hat, a helmet of thick blond hair, and a sharp blond beard...Everything down there but the curtain was red." I liked the way the image ended up, with the narrator staring at the black space next to him, an emptiness that he's trying to get away from, but still follows him wherever he goes.
"Oh I don't know. I'm a fat piece of shit, I guess."
It's obvious that Bill doesn't share the narrator's more positive outlook. He finishes shaving Bill, and hands him a mirror.
"What do you see?"
"How did I get so fat, when I never eat?"
"Is that all?"
"Well, I don't know. I just got here."
"What about your life."
"Hah! That's a good one."
"What about your past?"
"What about it?"
"When you look back, what do you see?"
"Any people in them?"
"People who are just meat now, man."
The narrator holds up the mirror for Bill to assess his mustache, but it's also for him to evaluate himself on a deeper level. And Bill's cynical reply shows the stark contrast between their outlooks. His life, all his experiences, hopes, and dreams, boil down to nothing more than a series of wrecked cars. And the people he's known? They're nothing more than "meat" now. He's referring to others, but it's clear that's how he sees himself as well. Just a piece of meat, with nothing more to hope for or look forward to than the moment he's thrown into the grinder. The narrator tries to convince him otherwise.
"Hey. You're doing fine."
"Talk into here."
"Talk into your bullet hole?"
"Talk into my bullet hole. Tell me I'm fine."
As you can hopefully tell from these, I loved the stories in Jesus' Son, and enjoyed working on these immensely. These tales give a glimpse into lives that most of us will never know, without romanticizing. I've read a lot from Denis Johnson since first working on that review piece for The Laughing Monsters. He's one of my favorite authors, and Jesus' Son remains one of my favorite books.