Author: Denis Johnson
Released: 1992
Genre: Short story collection

If you’ve ever been in a creative writing class, then you know how often drug abuse comes up in amateur fiction. In an ideal world, every creative writing prof would hand the student enamored with mind-altering highs and sordid violence a copy of Jesus’ Son, and then that student would stop. The student would stop because he isn’t Denis Johnson, and will never be. Johnson is too good.

Jesus’ Son, taking its title from The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” follows a junkie as he stumbles toward salvation in a broken American Midwest. Johnson takes him low before any hope appears, crafting some of the most electrifying prose in American fiction along the way. For a taste, here’s Johnson describing a transcendent moment at the bar:

“She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of the cocktail glass, no measuring…You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom. I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”

Fun Fact: In the 1999 film adaptation, co-starring Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary, Jack Black, and Michael Shannon, Denis Johnson, the author, appears as a man with a hunting knife stuck in his skull.