When I read Denis Johnson's book Jesus' Son for the first time I was so torn between admiration - jealousy at Denis Johnson's wordsmanship, and love for his reprehensible, funny, loveable and yet somehow very reliable narrator - that I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Actually, I did a little of both. If a young Willie DeVille had chosen to write fiction rather than music, and if he lived in Idaho rather than the East Village, this is the sort of story he'd have written - by turns lyrical, lachrymose, hilarious, and street stupid as hell. Here, for example is a very brief sample of what I found so breathtaking - our tour guide to the underbelly of Iowa describing his favorite watering hole:
"I looked down the length of the Vine. It was a long, narrow place, like a train car that wasn't going anywhere. The people all seemed to have escaped from someplace - I saw plastic hospital name bracelets on several wrists. They were trying to pay for their drinks with counterfeit money they'd made themselves, in Xerox machines."
Tell me you're not laughing.
This same sort of mordant zaniness infuses Alison MacLean's beautiful film adaptation, and everything about her vision of Johnson's own private Iowa jives with what he wrote about with such fierce tenderness. Billy Crudup offers a nice, nuanced performance as the narrator (code name FH, which stands for exactly what you think it does), who goes from hapless to helpless as his girlfriend Michelle introduces him to heroin, which immediately sets about claiming him for its own, and then back to hapless again as he makes his way from rehab to a series of jobs where he actually turns out to be somewhat helpful. Along the way their relationship founders under the relentless distraction of their collective drug habit which is the biggest little tragedy in a movie full of them because, sans heroin, they'd have been made for each other and we're made to feel that when we watch them kiss. Crudup's character, like Jesus' son if he'd had one, just never measures up to his potential. He's a sweet guy, his intentions are good, his heart's in the right place, but he'll never be a messianic figure or a saint; he's too easily distracted by the more determined sinners who cross his path hell bent on leading him astray.