The late Denis Johnson has a strong case for being the most influential American short story writer of the last twenty-five years. Jesus’ Son, his hallucinatory collection about addicts, losers, and weirdos struggling in the dark corners of America, was a revelation for countless writers, showing a way forward for minimalist realism that had grown stagnant by the early ‘90s. I know almost no writer of my generation who doesn’t refer to the book in the hushed tones of a sacred object. And yet Johnson achieved this mastery with his first, and until now, only collection. This month, Johnson’s posthumous book, and second short story collection, finally appears.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (Random House) collects five stories, most of them longer than thirty pages, that span a range of characters and situations, yet are unified by the aspect of Johnson’s work that towers over the rest: his voice. My god, that voice. Johnson somehow manages to be both conversational and poetic, simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious. The first blurb on the review copy of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is from Jonathan Franzen: “The God I want to believe in has a voice and a sense of humor like Denis Johnson’s.” Johnson’s voice is a flexible one, allowing him to speak in the gutter humor of addicts and the soaring beauty of myth. The stories are all in the first person, but the narrators include a teenage criminal, a middle class advertising man, and a poetry professor who gets wrapped up in a conspiracy about Elvis’s doppelganger.
Like any Denis Johnson work, each page of this collection is peppered with one or two tremendous lines that reach out to grab your heart. “I wonder if you’re like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you,” the narrator of the first story says suddenly. That first, and titular, story is composed of ten mini-chapters from the life of an advertising writer named Bill Whitman. The sections include a dinner party where old friends discuss the loudest sounds they’ve ever heard (“One said it was his wife’s voice when she told him she didn’t love him anymore and wanted a divorce”), another features a ceremony in Trump Tower where Whitman is given “a square of toilet paper with an obscene proposition written on it, in words large and plain enough that I could read them whether I wanted to or not.” Some sections are funny, others tragic, others merely strange. Most are all three at once. At the end, they somehow add up to an entire life, in all its mystery and beauty.
Johnson has an astonishing power to turn from one emotion to another in a line or two. His transitions between stories, sections, and paragraphs are worth the study of every aspiring fiction writer. Take this moment from the title story, when Whitman gets a call from his ex-wife, Ginny, who is on her deathbed and wants to “shed any kind of bitterness against certain people, certain men, especially me.” The two talk on the phone, explaining their pain, and reach a moment of bittersweet catharsis. Then the next paragraph swerves the moment into a new direction: “In the middle of this I began wondering, most uncomfortably, in fact with a dizzy, sweating anxiety, if I’d made a mistake—if this wasn’t my first wife Ginny, no, but rather my second wife, Jennifer, often called Jenny.”
Or look at how much he can cram into the first sentences of “Stranger Bob”:
You hop into a car, race off in no particular direction, and, blam, hit a power pole. Then it’s off to jail. I remember a monstrous tangle of arms and legs and fists, with me at the bottom, gouging at eyes and doing my utmost to mangle throats, but I arrived at the facility without a scratch or a bruise. I must have been easy to subdue.
That passage sounds like a section of Jesus’ Son, and indeed the story appears to be a kind of prequel to that collection. After being taken to jail, the narrator—”Dink”—befriends a young criminal named Dundun. Anyone who has read Jesus’ Son will remember the character of that name (“Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.”) The Dundun of “Strangler Bob” may or may not be the same man, or a brother, or just a doppelganger. “Dink” may be an early “Fuckhead”—the narrator of the stories in Jesus’ Son—who is about to earn an even more degrading nickname, or he may just be kindred lost soul.
Johnson describes his losers and freaks with the deepest humanity, a trait exemplified in “The Starlight on Idaho.” This story is a series of letters written by Mark Cassandra from rehab— “I’ve got about a dozen hooks in my heart, I’m following the lines back to where they go”—some to family members, others to lost loves, and a few to the devil himself.
The five stories in this collection are haunted by death: the loss of friends, the passing of old loves, and killings both intentional and not. This is most overt in “Triumph Over the Grave,” where an aging writer tells the stories of the deaths of friends. Johnson passed away last May at the age of 67, and this story ends on a prophetic note: “It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”
That story also includes a passage where the narrator describes the process of writing, one which seems to exemplify Johnson’s vision: “It’s not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie – although it has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years.”
Johnson’s passing last year triggered an outpouring from writers, many of whom (rightly) declared him one of the greatest writers of our time. And yet, Johnson somehow feels a little overlooked. Perhaps this is because his best works were in the two genres literary awards tend to snub their noses ats: the novella (Train Dreams) and the short story (Jesus’ Son). Neither of those books won a major prize, although Train Dreams has the odd honor of being one of the three finalists for the Pulitzer in the year the Pulitzer Prize Board refused to give out a fiction prize. But Johnson wasn’t just a master of short fiction. He was frustratingly good at everything he tried. Angels and Tree of Smoke are outstanding novels (the latter gave Johnson his sole major award in the 2007 National Book Award), his poetry is excellent, and his one non-fiction book, Seek, shows he could have been one of the most celebrated essayists if that had interested him.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is yet another terrific book of heart, humanity, and humor. Read and treasure it. It is a final gift from a master.