Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson approaches its subject by revealing the life-changing effects of addiction and how, whether in recovery or not, whether an addict or not, there are some truths that many people never face. It may take an addiction to bring reality into focus. It seems appropriate that the car wrecks appear first in this collection and become symbols of the far-reaching consequences of a destructive lifestyle, foreshadowing the events and the outcomes of such a lifestyle. Using this symbol is one way of approaching the theme.
The narrator is the enduring character throughout the scenarios and his thoughts reflect his confusion giving the story a disjointed quality, but with good reason. The themes are addressed and revealed through Johnson's style to enable the reader to glimpse life as an addict when conventional society rejects and alienates the addict. This results, for the addict, in an uncomfortable "norm" which makes comparisons with those much less fortunate in an effort to be uplifted. The inappropriate references and lack of political correctness reinforce the typical characteristics of addicts who, to avoid admitting failure, "fool each other.' The callousness of some of the narrator's actions can be attributed to his addiction and, as with addicts in real life, become an excuse to hide behind.
It is interesting to note that any occurrences are relative to the narrator's circumstances and "recovery" for the narrator may not be anything like the ideal for the next person. He is not an unreliable narrator because he does tell the story as he sees it. The difficulty lies in what he perceives and in his own version of reality. Therefore the theme of addiction and recovery is addressed here through the narrator's voice. In Beverly Home, the narrator finds a sense of purpose, if only briefly because, as he says while working in the home,
"All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had ...never even imagined... that there might be a place for people like us.”
The descriptions in Jesus' Son are intended to shock the reader into a sense of his or her own reality and how addiction is not just a problem for other people but is a very real problem for everyone and until people accept their own part in having created this culture, there can be no real inspiration or "recovery."