THE LARGESSE OF THE SEA MAIDEN
By Denis Johnson
207 pp. Random House. $27.
Let us review what is so good about Denis Johnson. I have often performed this exercise, with a modicum of writerly envy, over the decades of reading his work: What exactly is the alchemical magic in these pages? Everyone who started writing seriously in the 1980s or 1990s can tell you where he or she first consumed the morsels that eventually made up “Jesus’ Son,” Johnson’s breakthrough 1992 story collection. To behold those lines for the first time was to see language unaccountably capturing emotions in a way unfamiliar in recent American prose. Johnson once noted that he was working under the star of Isaac Babel while writing “Jesus’ Son,” and it showed; just as Babel saw (for example) the Russian sunset as others had not previously, Johnson transformed his misfits and heroin addicts until they became like protagonists from the time of epics.
“Angels,” Johnson’s 1983 debut novel, was similarly revelatory — making the homely backdrop of a Greyhound bus journey suddenly appropriate to the highest American literature. If Johnson sometimes stumbled in later books (he was prolific), they were exceptions in a long, restless and varied career that included not only fiction but plays, nonfiction and some impressive poetry collections. (I recommend “The Incognito Lounge.”)
What made the effective books so effective? In part, it is the consciousness of mortality found everywhere in his best work. This is the guy, after all, who wrote “Resuscitation of a Hanged Man” and “Already Dead.” It is the rare Denis Johnson work that doesn’t explicitly take up end-of-life questions. From the death-row sequences of “Angels” to the murder and car crashes and heroin addiction of “Jesus’ Son” to the Vietnam War setting of “Tree of Smoke,” his 2007 National Book Award-winning novel, there is ever a wafting of mortal fumes across Johnson’s paragraphs.
“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” Johnson’s new and presumably final collection — he died from liver cancer in May — is no outlier. Without exception the five stories that make up this volume, averaging about 40 pages each, feature intimations of mortality. There’s the former wife of the adman narrator, in the title story, who telephones to tell our man she’s dying, but without specifying which former wife she is. (“In the middle of this,” he notes, “I began wondering, most uncomfortably, in fact with a dizzy, sweating anxiety, if I’d made a mistake.”) There are the murderous, delusional inmates of a county lockup in “Strangler Bob,” and the fanciful and grim formulations about Elvis and his lost twin that haunt “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” the last story in the volume.
Credit…Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times
The movement across the whole of the collection echoes Dante: down, concentrically, into the revelations of illness and death, to “the phase in which these visits to emergency rooms and clinics increased in frequency and by now have become commonplace.”
Before it gets there, though, it sets the mood, beginning with the title story and its apparently unrelated fragments — some of them about advertising and some featuring blunt episodes of sex and death like something out of a late 1960s Jerzy Kosinski novel. This is followed by a weaker set piece about rehab, “The Starlight on Idaho”; reading it, I worried that the presumably ill and suffering author was too consumed with his difficulties to reach his most fertile core. But then comes “Strangler Bob,” in which Dink, the narrator (all of the stories are in the first person), tries to reckon not only with his reduced circumstances but with a prophecy, courtesy of his cellmate in county lockup, that he and two felonious acquaintances will one day commit a murder. It’s all very fun and strange, with glimmers of the old Johnson at work.
And then that Johnson breaks through in a big way, in a story boldly and maybe hopefully titled “Triumph Over the Grave,” and suddenly every mild reservation you might have had is forgotten. Suddenly, with exceptional luminosity, there is an unveiling.