Beverly Home by Denis Johnson, 1992
The magic trick:
Presenting the sober world as simply being a different set of weirdos from the world of drug addicts we got to know earlier in the Jesus’ Son collection
We come to the end of our week inside the Jesus’ Son collection, and we wrap things up with the final story in the book, “Beverly Home.”
It’s a happy ending of sorts. As happy as one could reasonably expect, at least.
So much of the power in Jesus’ Son derives from the narrator’s supreme confidence – or is it a total lack of concern? (and isn’t confidence and carelessness the same thing anyway? – in his own writer’s authority. It doesn’t matter what he’s telling you about, no matter how serious or insignificant, he sells it with a matter-of-fact numbness that is commanding. It’s as if every story begins as an answer to your imaginary “And that what happened next?”
The combination of that nonchalant narrative authority and the pathetic tales he tells is a remarkable mix. In other words, his narrative voice may be assured, but the character he portrays with that voice is anything but. Fuckhead is sad, lonely, mean, selfish, etc. etc. etc. His name is Fuckhead, after all.
OK, so all of this is to say that “Beverly Home” is a little bit different than its predecessors in the collection. In it, Fuckhead is trying to sober up. He’s settling down, at least on a relative scale. Gone are the meandering string of episodes. This feels like a self-consciously styled short story.
As a standalone, it really lacks the deranged energy of the other Jesus’ Son stories. But still, it works so well within the context of the collection.
So anyway, if it stylized, what is the desired effect? The deal here is we get another collection of freaks and outsiders. They’re not addicts. They’re, as far as we can tell, decent, law-abiding people. They’re just different. They’re old and broken. They’re religious and off to the fringes. They’re dwarves. They’re half-paralyzed.
It’s all very, very contrived.
But I still went for it.
It’s powerful stuff in a totally different way from the rest of Jesus’ Son.
And that’s quite a trick on Johnson’s part.
This woman was quite short, well under five feet, closer, in fact, to four and a half feet tall. Her arms weren’t proportional to her body, or at least not to her torso, although they matched her legs, which were also exceptionally abbreviated. Medically speaking, she was a dwarf. But that wasn’t the first thing you noticed about her. She had large, Mediterranean eyes, full of a certain amount of smoke and mystery and bad luck. She’d learned how to dress so you didn’t observe right away that she was a dwarf. When we made love, we were the same size, because her torso was ordinary. It was only her arms and legs that had come out too short. We made love on the floor in her TV room after she got her little daughter down for the night. Between our jobs and her routines with the little girl, we were kept to a kind of schedule. The same shows were always playing when we made love. They were stupid shows, Saturday-night shows. But I was afraid to make love to her without the conversations and laughter from that false universe playing in our ears, because I didn’t want to get to know her very well and didn’t want to be bridging any silences with our eyes.
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