Jesus' Son: Stories Characters

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Jesus' Son: Stories Summary & Study Guide Description

Jesus' Son: Stories Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion and a Free Quiz on Jesus' Son: Stories by Denis Johnson.

The Narrator, appears in All Stories

In the collection as a whole, and in the individual stories, there is very little information about who is speaking. Some things seem very clear - that all the stories are being told by the same person, that that person is male, that he is a heavy drug user, that he's relatively young (in his early twenties) and that he is less than successful at sustaining relationships with women. Other than that, there are very few details - little or no sense of childhood background, of the forces that shaped and/or defined him (and in particular his drug use), or of the forces that have apparently moved him away from drug use and into a clearer mindset. He is, for example, never referred to by name. He is occasionally referred to by his nickname, Fuckhead, a derogatory epithet that, in the minds of both the narrator and the friends who call him by that name, very clearly defines him as someone who makes stupid mistakes.

On a more sub-textual, implied level, the reader gets the impression that the narrator is struggling to keep a deep, desperate loneliness at bay - that he is searching for a physical, spiritual and sexual home. This impression results from the almost reverence with which the narrator frequently refers to the safety and friendliness of The Vine (see "Objects/Places"), the portrayal of himself in his few friendships (particularly with Georgie, Wayne, and Jack Hotel) as seeming almost desperate for companionship, and even from his near-obsession with the Mennonite couple in "Beverly Hotel." It's important to note, however, that in spite of this apparent loneliness he also, and just as clearly, is reluctant and/or unable to get too close to people, particularly women. In "Dirty Wedding," for example, he seems to be deliberately antagonizing the vulnerable Michelle, while in "Beverly Hotel" he clearly indicates that he's keeping both the women he becomes involved with at a distance.

It's also important to note that there is also the strong sense that the stories are being told with a degree of distance from the events they're describing - distance not only in terms of being older, but also in terms of perhaps being wiser, possibly less lonely, certainly more straight and/or sober. There is the a strong sense of reminiscence about these stories, almost nostalgia, perhaps even a bit of bemusement, as though the narrator can't quite believe his younger self did the things he's writing about (see "Style - Tone").

The Family in the Accident, appears in Car Crash While Hitchhiking

The family consists of a father, mother and baby. Only the mother is given a name - Janice - and all three survive the accident. The father is portrayed as being strangely, perhaps illogically, angry at the fact that his wife is unconscious. At the beginning of the narrator's encounter with them, the father is portrayed as being cautious about driving in bad conditions, perhaps a bit too much so. After the accident, he is portrayed as being strangely, perhaps illogically, angry at the fact that his wife is unconscious. The baby is portrayed as being innocently bewildered by what's happened, and perfectly safe. The mother is given no distinguishing characteristics.

The Dead Man and his Wife, appears in Car Crash While Hitchhiking

The unnamed dead man is the driver of the car that collides with the vehicle in which the narrator is riding. He is first seen by the narrator at the scene, severely injured but still alive - although somehow, the narrator (perhaps through drug-heightened instincts) knows he's going to die ... which he does, on the way to hospital. His unnamed wife appears only briefly, also at the hospital, where she is portrayed as initially being quite self-possessed, but later, when she hears of her husband's death, she experiences a tearing grief that the narrator seems to admire for its intensity, its very existence (see "Quotes," p. 9).

The Trucker, appears in Car Crash While Hitchhiking

The trucker encountered by the narrator during his search for help after the accident is ambivalent (at best), negative (at worst) about getting involved. His casual but quite evident lack of compassion is perhaps one of the darkest, most chilling elements of the story.

Richard and Tom, appears in Two Men

The narrator's two buddies don't have many distinguishing characteristics - both are cynical, and both seem more interested in self-preservation than in compassion or altruism, which means that on some level both are projections/externalizations of those characteristics in the narrator. At the end of the story Richard seems to be the more reckless of the two friends, the more edgy, a quality that has echoes in the narrator's apparent willingness to indulge in violence.

Stan and Thatcher, appears in Two Men

Stan and Thatcher are the two men encountered by the narrator and his buddies on the night that is the focus of the story. The individualized identities of the men aren't that deeply defined, with the ostensibly mute Stan eventually being revealed (by the nature and words of his friends) to be a user and manipulator, perfectly able to communicate. Thatcher is given even less of a character, being defined only by the narrator's perspective that he (Thatcher) sold him (the narrator) a bad batch of drugs. A later story in the collection (The Other Man) apparently provides more information about who Thatcher is, but because the man in that story is never actually named, it's not a hundred percent certain that the two men are the same.

Caplan and Alsatia, appears in Two Men

Alsatia is the name of a woman the narrator flirts with at a dance at the beginning of "Two Men," while Caplan is the name of the man with whom she is involved. Caplan never actually appears in the story, but given the narrator's determination to steer clear of him, there is the sense that Caplan can be violent, dangerous, and unreasonable.

Jack Hotel, appears in Out on Bail

Hotel appears in two stories, as a principal character in "Out on Bail" and as a minor character in "Dundun." He is portrayed as young, somewhat vulnerable and naïve, as somewhat lacking in willpower, and as a result being rather passive. There is the sense, in both Hotel's appearances, that life is something that happens to Hotel, instead of something that he goes out and lives on his terms.

Dundun, appears in Dundun

Of all the narrator's friends and acquaintances that appear in the pages of this collection, Dundun is perhaps the most violent, the most emotionally cold, and perhaps even the most psychotic. He is portrayed, in the story of which he is the title character, as impulsive, violent, and self-preservational. He, like many of the secondary characters in the collection, can be seen as a manifestation/externalization of the darker side of the narrator - in this case, his self-interest and his capacity for destroying others.

McInnes, appears in Dundun

McInnes is Dundun's victim in "Dundun", shot by him for reasons that aren't ever entirely made clear. There is the sense that their confrontation was triggered by a drug deal gone wrong, but again the narrative never clearly explains. McInnes is essentially stoic and calm, which may in fact be resignation to his fate and circumstance. In that sense he is clearly a contrast to the more volatile, more apparently desperate Dundun.

Wayne, appears in Work

Wayne is perhaps the closest that the narrator comes to a real friend. Yes, the two men are united by drug use and/or alcoholism, and by a need for money to fuel their habits. Somehow, however, the narrative conveys the sense that their camaraderie goes beyond their shared addiction, and desperation to do what it takes to feed that addiction. The narrator himself suggests that this is the case when he refers to his feeling that he is sharing Wayne's dream about his wife.

The Bartender at the Vine, appears in Work

The female bartender at The Vine is perceived and portrayed by the narrator as a much needed manifestation of grace, compassion, and unconditional generosity in a world that, to him, seems to have not much of any of them. It is perhaps ironic that these positive qualities manifest, according to the narrator, in her willingness to pour generously from the bottles of alcohol at her disposal. Ironic or not, her generosity (and the gratitude and affection with which the narrator receives them) are welcome notes of compassion in an otherwise very bleak portrayal of humanity.

Georgie, appears in Emergency

Georgie, like Richard, Tom, and Jack Hotel (but unlike Wayne) is portrayed as a friend born of circumstance and convenience, rather than of any apparent, genuine connection or bond. In other words, the only thing Georgie and the narrator have in common is drug addiction, which Georgie is evidently all too willing and able to indulge. The most interesting thing about Georgie is the comment he makes about himself at the story's conclusion, the suggestion that "he saves lives." It's important to note that the narrator makes no comment on the way Georgie says this - seriously, ironically, jokingly, a combination of all the above. In other words, the reader doesn't know whether to take Georgie seriously - whether he truly does see himself in this light, or whether he has a more ironic self image that lets him see his position and/or lifestyle for what it really is.

Michelle, John Smith, appears in Dirty Wedding

Of all the women the narrator portrays himself as being involved with (and there are several), Michelle is the only one actually given a name. There is no explicitly apparent reason for this, but the narrative and thematic content of the story suggests that she has a name because she is more important and/or memorable to the narrator than the others, perhaps because of her having had an abortion - perhaps, more specifically, because the narrator treated her callously afterward. In other words, she is perhaps given a name because the narrator feels particularly guilty about how he treated her, as opposed to the nameless women he becomes involved with and rejected about whom he seems to have little or no regrets. John Smith is the man Michelle eventually becomes involved with after her relationship with the narrator comes to an end. Both John and Michelle end up dead, both apparently of drug overdoses. They can perhaps be perceived as representing and/or externalizing the narrator's potential for self-destruction, accidental (as in John's case) or deliberate (as in Michelle's).

The Train Passengers, appears in Dirty Wedding

The two train passengers encountered by the narrator on his wanderings as described in "Dirty Wedding" both remain nameless, and both introduce the narrator to new sides of himself. The male passenger, or more specifically his semi-nudity, triggers in the narrator a previously un-hinted at, perhaps one time only, attraction to his own gender. The female passenger introduces him to the possibility, as he himself suggests, "that wherever you look, all you see is yourself." In other words, she awakens the narrator to the concept of self-awareness, a kind of spiritual seed planting that ultimately seems to have grown into the kind of self-perception that has resulted in his being able to tell his stories.

The Polish Man, appears in The Other Man

At the beginning of "The Other Man," the narrator suggests that the man portrayed in this story is the second man referred to in "Two Men." The man in that story is named Thatcher and is portrayed as having sold the narrator some bad drugs. The man in this story is unnamed, and while there is no mention of any kind of drug deal, there is the sense that he is duplicitous and manipulative, a portrayal that at least implies that he could be a drug dealer, and the sort that would sell bad drugs as good.

The Woman in the Bar, appears in The Other Man

The unnamed woman in the bar is another of the women with whom the narrator becomes involved and apparently uses for (mutual) sexual pleasure. While it's never actually discussed, there is the sense that this woman, again like the others, is dismissed and/or discarded as soon as the pleasure is over. The apparent difference between this and the other women is that this woman comes across as being just as duplicitous as the other man. The fact that the narrator embraces that duplicity in order to realize pleasure is a stark contrast to his eventual rejection of the second man's duplicity (in "Two Men") which he had initially accepted (also in the name of receiving pleasure, albeit from drugs rather than sex).

Angelique, appears in Happy Hour

Unlike Michelle, the only other named woman in this collection, the narrator never has sex with Angelique - he only wants to. There is the sense that she, young and beautiful though she may be, is in fact a distraction - like the bus rides and the trip to the library, she is little more than a distraction, something to keep the narrator occupied while he's waiting for his chance for cheaper booze during happy hour.

Steady Hands at Seattle General, appears in Bill

This character literally has holes in his head - in his cheeks, to be specific, the result of a gun-violent encounter with a woman. There is the sense that he, as brief a participant in the narrator's life (and in the stories about that life) as he is, that he has defined himself and his perspective on the world by these holes. In other words, he is a victim. "Talk to the hole," he says at the end of the story. In this perspective he, like many of the other characters encountered by the narrator, can be seen as an externalization of a characteristic of the narrator - in this case, his sense of victim-hood.

The Mennonite Couple, appears in Beverly Home

The narrator's voyeuristic involvement with this young, conservative married couple begins with his accidental observation of the wife after a shower, continues with the development of his obsession with watching the husband and wife have sex, and ends with his discovery not only of their capacity for fantasy-destroying argument, but also for kindness, forgiveness and transcendence. There is the sense that his encounter with the couple's love and compassion (and spirituality?) plays an important role in his process of healing from his addiction and the damage it has caused both him and others.

The Narrator's Lovers, appears in Beverly Home

In "Beverly Home," the narrator portrays himself as sexually involved with not one but two women, both of whom have some kind of physical disability that, on some level, echoes and mirrors his own emotional and spiritual disability. In other words, they are cripples together, finding mutual support, renewal and healing as they see past the disabilities and into need and vulnerability. The irony, of course, that in the case of the first woman in particular, the narrator's openness to build a broader relationship on that new kind of seeing is both restricted and restricting - in other words, he wants sex, not feeling. There is the sense that through his involvement (?) with the Mennonite couple, as well as with the people he takes care of at the home, his involvement with the second woman has at least the beginnings of a deeper sense of feeling and spirituality - in other words, that he is even further along the way towards healing and wholeness.

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