Denis Johnson’s Last Gift to Readers


In 2004, after over a quarter-century releasing music under the project named Jandek, Sterling Smith gave the world a glimpse. It wasn’t a complete biography, but the artist who had intentionally shielded his true identity while releasing sometimes two new albums of raw and ghostly folk music a year showed he was more than just a face that graced a handful of album covers. Since that first performance, Smith continues to perform live, but still little is known about him. He remains an enigma, granting almost no personal access to his life or methods. We ask so much of artists, we want to know every little thing, the things that make them tick and personal anecdotes that we can pick apart to see if those little moments made their way into a lyric or scene in a painting. The kind of artist that is willing to hold back the half that might tell us what we want to know about their work, where the artist stops and the work starts (or vice versa) is becoming as rare as the one that chooses to work and live in total obscurity, that do it for the sake of creating.

Denis Johnson was hardly obscure. People knew who he was. His books remain available at nearly any store you go into, one of his collections was turned into a film, and he won major awards. Comparing Johnson to somebody like Jandek might not make sense, but in a way, they operated in similar fashions. The musician wants his music to speak for itself; Johnson seemed intent on making sure his sentences and stories did the same. It’s difficult to call Johnson an “outsider” like many have labeled Smith and his work, but as far as successful authors go, he was. Johnson didn’t give that much away. He didn’t play the game, didn’t do the kind of self-promotion that’s often been necessary for a writer to sell their work. Johnson was half there. He didn’t let us know all that much about him, and in some ways, that always added to the experience of reading his work.

There’s a part in Johnson’s 2007 acceptance speech for the National Book Award for Fiction that really sums up Johnson best to me, and it wasn’t even made by him. His wife Cindy, accepting on Johnson’s behalf, mentioned that people who know him had been asking her if Johnson had been ducking the ceremony. She joked, “that’s only partially true,” and that her husband was in Iraq reporting on something. The “partially true” part has always stuck with me. How much of his work is real and how much is made up? What had Johnson seen and lived that he transcribed into his fiction, and what was purely imagination? As somebody who has always tried to take fiction at face value as best I can, Johnson has been the one writer who made me wonder if any of that stuff in Jesus’ Son really happened directly to him or people he had known or if he’d observed some people. I can read something like Brideshead Revisited and interpret it certain ways knowing what I know of Evelyn Waugh. The same is true for Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin; I feel like I know enough that I can separate fact from fiction. With Johnson, it’s always been a little bit clouded. Did he see some down and out types on a bus and piece together Angels? Johnson really never seemed to want to give any of that away, and I’m thankful for that –– somewhat.

Johnson is a person who I could say I got to know through his fiction, but the truth is that I hardly knew a damn thing about him, save for what he offered up in the sporadic interview or from glancing at his Wikipedia page. It always felt to me that he tried to obscure his life as best he could. Just like the music Smith has released under the name Jandek, maybe that added to the appeal. Sure, like many readers I was drawn in by the stories in Jesus’ Son. I followed along after that, picking up the pieces Johnson dropped for us to read. But there was something about the unknown that drew me in more.

Johnson died last spring at the age of 67. Cancer. It was all part of the whirlpool of bad news that kept sucking us down the dirtiest drain imaginable, then spitting us back up so it could pull us back down again. Not long after, it was revealed that a book, a new collection of short stories, was to act as sort of his final statement. Of course, when an artist dies, there’s always that feeling that we’re going to see a never ending stream of lesser works; unfinished manuscripts, half-baked stories that didn’t get the proper amount of editing, letters, and whatever else can be put into a new book to sell. With Johnson, however, I’m not so sure we’ll see much of that. It just doesn’t seem like his style.

Less than ten months later, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden acts as a farewell letter from a person we hardly knew. Five short stories that we’re tasked with taking in not long after the author has passed on. There’s something very weighty going into reading something like that. It’s the same weight I felt trying to listen to Blackstar by David Bowie. There’s a very personal connection you make to an artist through their work over years of listening, watching, or reading, and suddenly, one day, they’re gone. You may have had zero personal contact with the person, but you feel the loss, it hits you hard. You tweet about it. You pick one of their old novels off your shelf, or you spend an entire day listening to their records. Experiencing work posthumously isn’t the easiest thing. The finality of the whole thing makes it difficult to read or listen clearly.

There was so much I wanted to attach to the stories in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, so I put off reading it as long as I could. When I finally picked the book up, I read the title story that opens the book a first time, and realized I’d been over-thinking things, that I still wasn’t ready. I wrote in my notebook that maybe Train Dreams, Johnson’s novella that I consider my favorite of all his books, was a hidden meditation on middle-age, and the stories contained in this latest collection serve as some sort of coming to grips with the inevitable. Whether Johnson wrote any of the stories knowing his time on earth was limited I have no idea, but I still felt that there was something underneath The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. Whether it was something that’s always been hidden in plain sight in Johnson’s work and I didn’t notice, or it manifested itself as he worked out these stories, I noticed something deeper. Maybe I was just more aware, senses heightened by emotion, or maybe I was just making it all up.

A few of these stories were years in the making. “The Starlight on Idaho,” for instance, made its debut in Playboy in 2007. Johnson marinated over things, it seemed. It took nearly a decade for Train Dreams to go from a story in The Paris Review to its own book. It very well could be that Johnson had some large number of stories to pick from, and he just happened to like this handful enough to turn them in to his editor.

Death does creep across the pages of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, but people tend to die in Johnson’s other work. Why should this be any different?

“This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life––the distance I’ve traveled from my own youth, the persistence of old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel form––that I almost crashed the car,” he writes in the opening story. Life, love, and regret are themes you pick up on throughout the book. There are parts of the story, “Triumph Over the Grave,” a title that just begs you to read deeper into Johnson’s words, that seem like they could be semi-autobiographical. It’s that old Johnson magic; getting us to wonder where the real life ends and the fiction begins. “I observed the Great Void of Extinction was swallowing the whole of reality at an impossible rate of speed, and yet nothing could overcome our continual birthing into the present,” the narrator tells us. What are the circumstances for this deep, infinite thought? A visit to the knee doctor.

The story is about a writer. He’s getting older, people are dying. The writer is roughly Johnson’s age, and his contemporaries bare some resemblances to any number of writers with some little morsel of success in the Sixties or Seventies, “back when writers were still sort of important and, as with athletes, “promise” draped even the unproven ones with a certain glamour.” This story, maybe more than any, was the one that gave me as a reader some closure.

“Writing. It’s easy work,” Johnson writes. It’s not, and I don’t necessarily think it was easy for him, either. The stories in this, what we have to assume is his last collection, are a gift. A way to better understand a writer who held back for reasons he saw fit. We see that, even facing down his last years, Johnson always wrote with authority. Nothing he wrote ever felt overly-researched; he came off as a person who experienced so much. Maybe he didn’t directly see or live any of the things that happened in his fiction, and The Largesse of the Sea Maiden makes it clear that none of that matters. He lived and he wrote. What else should we ask of the living while they’re around and what should we expect from the dead? It’s easy to heap praise on this gift from Johnson we’ve received after he’s departed for the sake of being sensitive or nostalgic, but I have to imagine that Johnson would have hated that. Instead, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden gives much to dwell on about Johnson’s life and death, and maybe about your own.

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