ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Today's installment of our summer series You Must Read This comes from author Nathan Englander. He's written "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" and "The Ministry of Special Cases." He recommends a book that he discovered as a 20-something at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
Mr. NATHAN ENGLANDER (Author, "For the Relief of Unbearable Urges"): If you're only going to read one book this year about getting stabbed in the eye and crushing tiny, helpless bunnies, then I'd run right out and get Denis Johnson's "Jesus' Son."
I rarely go back to books, but I can never get enough of "Jesus' Son." It's a small volume of 11 short stories. And it is brutally honest and painfully beautiful. It's set in a down-and-out world of drugs and drink. But wait, don't turn that dial. Mr. Johnson succeeds at this where so many others fail.
He doesn't ever romanticize these dark settings, but he leaves his narrator open to the fact that, despite it all, we may live in a heartbreakingly romantic world.
Just because Mr. Johnson doesn't romanticize, doesn't mean I can't, because I came to these stories in the most wonderful way. Someone - I can't remember who and don't remember when - gave me a Xeroxed copy of the first story, "Car Crash While Hitchhiking." If you look at the book, you'll see the author's name is absent from the margins, and not even the whole title of the story is there. So I read what I thought was called "Car Crash," and loved it and was moved by it.
And then, in the way good reading makes you feel like your connection to it was fated, I soon ended up with a copy of the book in my hands. When I started it, I knew. This is that guy. And I read on and on, and thought, this guy is that good.
I was living in Iowa City at the time, and this book, for my friends and me, became sort of a young writers' bible. This is the kind of thing that could be done. With dialogue that feels like you're getting it verbatim and stripped-down prose, Denis Johnson writes simple, honest stories that have the bigness of great work.
The plots go like this. A man shaves his roommate in the hospital, the shavee having survived being shot three times by two different wives. There's one about a hospital orderly mopping a floor that's already clean, and another with a guy out on bail drinking at The Vine, a bar I could see from my apartment window, which once again, is me romanticizing.
And even better, when you read them, the stories might sound like this. I went out to the farmhouse where Dundun lived to get some pharmaceutical opium. Or like this. We lay down on a stretch of dusty plywood in the back of the truck with the daylight knocking against our eyelids and the fragrance of alfalfa thickening on our tongues.
Getting back to "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," that painful, stunning and, to me, ultimately hopeful story about death, the narrator finds himself back in detox and at rock bottom. He's hearing voices, seeing things, and acknowledging his pitiable state, he addresses us, his dear readers. He says quite frankly, and you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you. But we do, Denis Johnson, we do.
SIEGEL: Nathan Englander is author, most recently, of the novel "The Ministry of Special Cases." You'll find an excerpt from "Jesus' Son," along with other summer reading recommendations at npr.org.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
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