In the past couple years, there have been quite a few works published just months within the deaths of their authors. In addition to Jenny Diski’s In Gratitude, W. P. Kinsella’s Russian Dolls, Umberto Eco’s Numero Zero, and C. D. Wright’s The Poet, The Lion . . ., Canongate has announced a new collection of Leonard Cohen poems entitled Flame to be released later this year. Many of these works discuss death or old age directly, while in others, the subjects are merely lit from behind. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden features a story titled ‘Triumph Over the Grave,’ which ends with the following line: “It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”
The small shiver of awe with which you may encounter this line will no doubt stay with you for a while yet. Denis Johnson has long alluded to the personal foundations of his work, such as drug addiction or his father’s work with the CIA, but this new collection of stories gives a more direct and relatable impression than ever of the recently departed writer. It is difficult to read The Largesse of the Sea Maiden without participating in some way of his memorial.
That being said, the overwhelming takeaway of Largesse is that Denis Johnson can write. Reading this collection gave me a palpable sense of relief, as if for the first time in a long while I could read uninhibitedly, without fear of overwriting or cliché and simply confident in the author’s vision and control. Some of the passages are imitative, it is true, like a conversation at a one-way peep show clearly right out of Paris, Texas, while others remind us of their brighter counterparts in Train Dreams or Jesus’ Son, but the language is finely crafted overall, and some of the sentences are truly striking in their structure:
And once—maybe the night I dreamed about Tony, I don’t remember—I had the kind of moment or visitation I treasure, when the flow of life twists and untwists, all in a blink—think of a taut ribbon flashing: I heard a young man’s voice in the parking lot of the Mormon church in the dark night telling someone, “I didn’t bark. That wasn’t me. I didn’t bark.”
The protagonists of this collection are mostly older, in their sixties or seventies. They are writers turned creative writing professors, aged artists navigating their partial remembrance. They look back on departed friends, literary success, historic benders. As the narrator of the title story puts it: “I have more to remember than to look forward to.”
Other protagonists are straight out of Jesus’ Son, that 1992 gospel of Raymond Carver-on-heroin-and-acid stories for which Johnson is probably best known. ‘The Starlight on Idaho” consists of a fluid series of letters written from a rehab facility by a man named Mark Cass, who reprises his role as the fucked-up son of a fucked-up family from Johnson’s 2002 play Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames (“Do you remember when Dad scooped his hand down in his soggy cereal and just sat there staring at nothing for about twenty-two minutes with a glop of it in his hand?”). The subjects may be familiar but the story is powerful; Johnson lets the letters bleed into one another until any notion of their physical existence has dried up, creating a feeling of desperation, as reading from the other side of a thick glass wall. The language is raw and direct. “Everything I’ve done, every thought I’ve thought, every moment I’ve lived, is shit turned to dust and dust blown away.” Johnson, as he will undoubtedly be remembered, is the master of writing rock bottom.
The finest story of the collection though is ‘Triumph Over the Grave,” a semi-autobiographical account of two deathbed scenes and one vivid medical demonstration. Even without its ghostly last line, this story would be shocking for its sheer prescience of death. One character, lying on his deathbed, asks the narrator to take him to his room. “It looks a lot like this one,” he says, “but this room isn’t the right one.” The dying man then gets up out of bed and walks out into a thunderstorm of stupendous wind and crazed Northern California cypress trees, only to go back around to the front of his house, lie back down on the same bed, and begin dying. Another long-forgotten writer passes his final days in an empty shithole ranch under vultures in a hot Texas sky, remembered only by two other forgotten writers who take him to the hospital and stay with him there. This all may sound like Denis Johnson or his editor is hitting us over the head a bit, but “Triumph” is really just a finely articulated and heartbreaking rumination on the last impression one makes in this world, and how rare it is to share it.
Other stories in the collection include “Strangler Bob,” a prison story of vibrant and grotesque characters, and “Doppelganger, Poltergeist,” about an Elvis conspiracy theorist and 9/11 that unfortunately falls a bit short of the mark. It should be said that “Doppelganger” and “Triumph” are the only two stories of this collection not to have been previously excerpted in magazines.
Finally, there is the title story, which is perhaps the most polished of the collection but also a bit crammed, giving in forty pages a life of details about an advertising man. Its strengths come in small moments: the long-away New Yorker, woken by nerve pain at one in the morning, leaving his hotel room to wander the snow-covered streets; or the ending, in which the narrator opens a book of folk tales and reads about “apples that summon sea maidens, eggs that fulfill any wish, and pears that make people grow long noses that fall off again.”
The title ‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” seems to be a direct reference to a Scottish folk tale about a mermaid and a fisherman’s son, a typically meandering story involving the usual kings and hags and cows and enchanted eggs. Folk tales may not seem especially compatible with Johnson’s work, but it is interesting to consider here that his most celebrated stories about minds careening and blooming with drugs may actually be reflections of these older, magic worlds. There is something about Johnson’s short fiction, after all, that we love, but seems difficult to grasp; something unbounded by the typical trajectories of published work. Perhaps this is because it channels an older form of storytelling, one which ruptures the normal images of life until they resemble the kind of dreams in which anyone can be captured or saved or thrown down and defeated. And it does seem to inspire a similar kind of awe—the fairytale trout springing from a deer carcass to the aid of a young prince, and the prisoner who has eaten a sheet of magazine paper dipped in LSD, listening to an inmate describe how he ate his wife.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
by Denis Johnson
Random House; 206 pp.