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The Singular Voice Of Denis Johnson Turned Out To Be Unfilmable, But Alison Maclean Came Close With ‘Jesus’ Son’

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Jesus' Son

I thought of the movie of Jesus’ Son last month when I heard that the author Denis Johnson had died at the age of 67. One image in particular swam into view: the main character, played by Billy Crudup, takes a piece of paper and puts it in his mouth while staring towards but not directly at the viewer. There is chewing, and swallowing. He eats the document.

The image comes as a kind of non sequitur in the film, and it has no precedent in the book, though in some way it is the detail that most capture the book’s spirit. That swallowed piece of paper reminded me of the famous line from Deliverance: “squeal like a pig.”

That line doesn’t appear in the James Dickie novel, either. It was ad libbed on the set of John Boorman’s film. And now it’s the signature line of a film that is based on a book that does not contain that line.

There is no good reason to be talking about Deliverance when I want to be talking about Jesus’ Son, except that both authors, Denis Johnson and James Dickey, were poets, and both wrote about places set apart from the American metropolis.

When I read Deliverance a few years ago, I was struck by how beautiful and powerful the novel was, but also how the movie may have been better, capped off by that spooky, terrifying, and kind of funny phrase, “squeal like a pig.”

I know there have been many excellent movies based on excellent books. But have there been many, or any, great movies based on great books? I mean those mythic books that transcend their moment and enter the bloodstream of the culture. Such books get made into movies, too, of course, but they are not eclipsed by them. I’m talking about Orwell’s 1984, or The Great Gatsby, or Huckleberry Finn. Maybe you’ll remember Redford as Gatsby, wearing that white suit, or the troubled, tired eyes of John Hurt in 1984, but the books tower over the films. This is even true of Robert Altman’s adaptation of Carver’s stories, Short Cuts, which I loved. So many fantastic moments and images in that movie. I love Altman! But Carver’s prose stands above the film, in my opinion.

Then there is The Catcher in the Rye, which will never be a film. But if it were made into a movie, I can’t imagine it coming close to the impact and penetration of Salinger’s book.

If there is an exception to this rule it is probably To Kill a Mockingbird. The film, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, added to the book’s reputation and cultural clout and, for a few generations, at least, shared equal billing with it.

Great books make their movies seem like curiosities that sometimes rise the level of cultural artifact, like Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, which was calamitously retitled Who’ll Stop the Rain for the movie. If you want to sell tickets, Stone later remarked, “don’t put a Swedish Diphthong in the title.” I got more pleasure out of Stone’s phrase “Swedish Diphthong,” uttered at a reading at the 92d Street Y in 1993, than I did from the movie, though Nick Nolte is memorable at the end, on his hands and knees in the desert, trying to scoop up a pile of spilled cocaine and separate it from the sand.

Jesus’ Son made a huge impression on me and many others of my generation who read it when it came out in 1992; the film wouldn’t come out until 2000. The stories had already made their mark when they came out in the New Yorker and the Paris Review in the preceding years. I put Jesus’ Son in the company of Great Books. There’s no expectation it will enter the school syllabus or sell tens of millions of copies like these other titles, but I am told the book has traction among younger generations.

Watching the film adaptation of Jesus’ Son now, or skimming through parts of it, I’m struck by what a beautiful series of images the director, the extremely talented Alison MacLean, has conjured. There is something about the film’s grainy and saturated look that reminds me of Gus Van Zandt’s Drugstore Cowboy or Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66.

But Van Sant had a specific place as the center of his film, and Vincent Gallo’s movie was anchored by the special kind of craziness embodied by the character played by Vincent Gallo. In Jesus’ Son, the attractive, amiable Billy Crudeup, seems lost and adrift in his character, which is in some ways appropriate, because the central character of Jesus’ Son is himself lost and adrift in the world. He is pickled by hard drugs and life on the road – the first story begins with the narrator soaking by the side of a highway after a terrible break up with a woman – and by the hardness of life, and yet his sensibility is almost babyishly open, naive, and gentle. The movie uses a voice over but doesn’t get the voice. iTunes and Amazon list it as a comedy, perhaps because of Jack Black and Dennis Leary (both of whom were prominently featured on the VHS and DVD box art in an attempt to imbue this decidedly uncommercial film with some mainstream appeal). At first, I found this to be outrageous, but then decided there was something darkly absurd, even appropriate, about it.

A piece of literary trivia and Denis Johnson ephemera that meant a lot to me was the way he described his story “Emergency” in Best American Short Stories 1992. I was in there, too, self-consciously disclaiming any autobiographical content in what was a very autobiographical story, and then Johnson shows up in that plain spoken, borderline irritated voice of his that appeared when he was speaking as himself and announced that his story, “Emergency,” was part of a bunch of pieces he had been working on all based on autobiographical experiences, with a central character names Fuckhead. I loved his recent Train Dreams, but Jesus’ Son stands apart.

Denis Johnson’s voice was such a strange and lyrical mixture of daft naïveté and hard-eyed wisdom. The most unfilmable thing in Jesus’ Son, beyond the voice, was the way the stories would bring you into a moment with Carver-esque immediacy, and yet the whole time you felt as though it was all being recalled from a great distance, and then that suspicion is realized, like the last lines of “Emergency” —that story in that Best American volume— when the narrator wonders “what happened to that world, they rolled up it like a scroll.”* The movie, I admire. But I really love that book.

* The actual line is: “That world! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?” And it’s not the last line.

Thomas Beller’s books include Seduction Theory, The Sleep-Over Artist, and J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist, which won the New York City Book Award for biography/memoir. He teaches at Tulane University and is a frequent contributor to NewYorker.com’s Culture Desk.

Watch Jesus' Son on Showtime

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