The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson review: sublime last book
Gorgeous posthumous short story collection from this most intrinsically American of writers
Author Denis Johnson. Photograph: Cindy Johnson
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
The posthumous publication of this slim short-story collection, Denis Johnson’s second after the great Jesus’ Son (1992), is a major event in American letters. In the US he’s deified, and though he’s fervently admired in this part of the world, he’s never been as big a deal here as over there. How could he ever have been, this most intrinsically American of writers? Johnson’s abiding themes of purification through suffering, and of grace, transcendence and redemption, seep from the religious foundation myth of the English-American nation. The parallel America – the commercial project founded on tobacco and lubricated by booze – is also conditioned into his prose, which is sometimes streetwise and tough, and always informal, light, elegant and miraculously tender. It comes through too in many of his characters – damaged, confused, musky males who push on in hope.
In the title story, an advertising copywriter, Bill Whitman, who has “lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future”, surveys episodes of his recent past. The scenes, delivered in short titled sections as per his grasping mode of recall, are freighted with uncanny gestures or mysterious signs. He remembers a highly-strung outsider artist he once knew who painted only energetic biblical canvases; during a snowstorm in Manhattan, he stumbles into a restaurant whose interior and inhabitants are rendered – to him as to us – as off-beam as in a Hopper painting; on a night-time walk he hears a voice call out from a Mormon church: “I didn’t bark. That wasn’t me. I didn’t bark.”
The name Whitman is no accident, and it continues a Johnsonian trademark of giving his characters surnames incandescent with meaning
Whitman’s isn’t a manic mind. It’s much gentler than that: he’s a man in late middle-age, floating blearily through the present and through his memories, wondrous as often as fearful, attuned to the grace and largesse that the universe is apt to dole out. “I wonder if you’re like me,” he tells us, “if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you.” This is the first story in the book and, thematically, the keynote.
The name Whitman is no accident, and it continues a Johnsonian trademark of giving his characters surnames incandescent with meaning. In the next story, The Starlight on Idaho, we meet, through his letters, a man named Cassandra, an unwilling resident of an addiction recovery centre. “Cas”, as he signs off as, is in a living hell, certain that Satan is scratching at his door. Meanwhile, a fellow patient, whose purgation is given to us in a startling sequence in the last letter, suffers the torment of God, “every last fiber of [his] soul in the almighty grip of the truth”.
Strangler Bob proceeds in a whirr of character choreography, all the characters being inmates of a county lock-up for the 41 days in 1967 that the narrator, recalling his own imprisonment, crosses their paths. The key memory is an utterance by the stolid title character, relaying “a message for you from God”, that the narrator and two other prisoners will “end up doing murder”. And he is proven right, sort of, though the haunting sense we’re left with is that the entire cast is condemned from birth.
The last two stories are about writers, madness and death. In Triumph Over the Grave, the narrator, much as in the book’s first story, traces over a stream of past events, but here he is literally writing his memories out - what we’re reading is his testament to these personally significant episodes, all linked by the deaths of friends. It’s terribly moving, in itself and for reasons that don’t need stating, and contains the collection’s most powerful image: approaching the remote country home of a dying fellow writer, our narrator notices an ominous swirl of vultures which, nonetheless, looks “no more substantial than burning pages”.
Doppelganger, Poltergeist features a poet, Kevin Harrington, and his patient attention to a younger, more talented poet who is in the grip of an Elvis Presley obsession. Much of the story is taken up with a bonkers conspiracy theory about Elvis’s dead twin, and thus it’s a proper page-turner. But it’s the humanity and tact of Harrington – whose dates tally with Johnson’s own – that glows through. The last words of the story – the last words of this gorgeous collection, immanent with the warmth of its author’s spirit – are “Elvisly Yours”, and they give us pause to consider with sadness, and with gratitude for all he’s left behind, that the King has departed.
Gavin Corbett is the author of three novels, most recently Green Glowing Skull, and is the current UCD writer-in-residence