“Rough hewn, obstinate, individual” – The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson

My will power seems to work in direct inverse proportion to my age. The older I get, the less willing I am to savour those things I enjoy. Not even the less willing. I’m powerless to resist. So it is with The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Denis Johnson’s final book, a posthumous release that serves as a bookend to his first short story collection, Jesus’ Son, published all the way back in 1992 (and, it should be said, not his debut, although it is often wrongly thought of as that – Johnson’s debut was a collection of poetry, The Man Among Seals, published in 1969 when he was 19). I tried to savour this book, took big gulps of air, sat staring out of train windows at the world rushing by, buried it in my bag and fumbled, bored, with my phone – yet still I couldn’t help but read, and still it flashed by as surely as the world outside those train windows.

What we have are five stories here that traverse the twin stars of Johnson’s oeuvre – from the likes of ‘Strangler Bob’, set in a prison and featuring Dundun from the eponymous story that appeared within Jesus’ Son, and ‘The Starlight on Idaho’, which comes at you in the form of a series of letters written by the inmate of a rehab clinic to members of his family, his doctor, God, the devil, you get the picture (and which again features recurring characters, the Cassandras having themselves appeared within Johnson’s play, Soul of a Whore) to three stories led off by writerly sorts, thereby placing themselves more at The Name of the World end of the Johnson spectrum (and it’s that book, possibly more than all of the others, that is your entry here: if you know, are familiar with and like that book, you will like this book a great deal).

Of the three, shall we say more ‘academic’ stories, we have the title story, which concerns an ad man called Chris Whitman and various anecdotes largely concerning an award he picked up for an you’ve probably seen, and various people he knew that died. In ‘Triumph over the Grave’, which again circles about stories both major and minor, our gradual focus becomes a writer friend of the narrator who is on his way out. And in the – it has to be said – epic final story in the collection, the mesmerisingly titled ‘Doppelganger, Poltergeist’, we have a narrator who is a creative writing teacher, who tells us of a former student, a poet who made something of himself whilst labouring beneath the intoxicating obsession of a theory about Elvis Presley involving Presley’s twin (who died in real life at birth, so they say).

There is, as you might expect, a lot of death in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, and it comes in many forms. “Ersatz corpses, ersatz documents, false trails, furious complications,” as he puts it in ‘Doppelganger, Poltergeist’. There is the middle age ennui that comes at you, “assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life”:

“the distance I’ve travelled from my own youth, the persistence of old regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in new forms”.

Moments when “the surroundings seemed bereft of any facts, and not even the smallest physical gesture felt possible.” There are lists (such and such died, such and such died, such and such died). There is confusion, as when the narrator of ‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’ receives a call from his first wife letting him know she is dying, only for the narrator to experience a mad pang of conscience mid-conversation, not knowing if it was in fact his first wife or his second. There are the locations themselves too, haunted houses all, of various stripes. In ‘Strangler Bob’, the narrator wonders if prison is “some kind of intersection for souls”, a place where our narrator sees the same people over and over, in dreams and actuality, as if it were limbo. Later, in ‘Triumph of the Grave’, the idea calls to him again from an emergency room,

“…the Parkland Community Hospital’s emergency room doors opened onto a new phase of my own life, one I can expect to continue until all expectations cease, the phase in which visits to the emergency rooms and clinics increased in frequency and by now have become commonplace…”

Johnson also calls out to the reader in ways I don’t remember him doing so before: “I wonder if you’re like me,” he says in ‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden”, “if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you.  In ‘Triumph over the Grave’, he writes:

“Writing. It’s easy work. The equipment isn’t expensive, and you can pursue this occupation anywhere. You make your own hours, mess around the house in your pyjamas, listening to jazz recordings and sipping coffee while another day makes its escape.”

He talks about “the convention in these semi-autobiographical tales – these pseudo-fictional memoirs”. In ‘Doppelganger, Poltergeist’, Johnson takes flight:

“The Past just left. Its remnants, I claim, are mostly fiction. We’re stranded here with the threadbare patchwork of memory, you with yours, I with mine…”

At his most elegiac, he writes:

“It doesn’t matter. The world keeps turning. 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 Largesse of the Sea Maiden doesn’t come at you in the same way that Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night did. It remains as rough hewn, as obstinate, as individual as you’d expect. Johnson is more of a Bowie – you sense he knew his own end was imminent through the clouds of these stories, but there is no breakdown, no call for understanding at last. What comfort there is comes at you like Ray Carver’s later poems. This is life, you sense him shrugging. I’m done now.

Any Cop?: It’s a great book and it’s earning some terrific reviews. If those reviews send new readers Johnson’s way, if some of those other books, some of the less well-read ones perhaps (Fiskadoro, perhaps, or Already Dead), get thumbed for the first time, all the better. Johnson is one of the greats and he should be read and re-read.



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