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Review: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden caps off Denis Johnson’s sublime career

Denis Johnson won the National Book Award for his Tree of Smoke.

Title
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
Author
Denis Johnson
Genre
Fiction
Publisher
Random House
Pages
207
Price
$35

Somewhere in the middle of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, the exquisitely maundering eponymous story in Denis Johnson's posthumously published collection, the narrator, Bill Whitman, softly blindsides us with a direct address. "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." That Mystery lurks within every turn of Johnson's tales, whose protagonists continually stumble across or collide head-on with some lopsided variant of the sublime.

It is, of course, tough to touch the sublime without increasing one's proximity to oblivion, thus drugs, crime or war permeate works such as Johnson's National Book Award-winning novel Tree of Smoke or his beloved story collection Jesus' Son. With three of these five new, last stories, however, Johnson's narrators, speaking from late middle age, are wrapped up in neither vice nor violence. They are, rather, twilight observers, holding vigil over the sundry witherings and deaths of others. These stories would be profoundly moving even if Johnson were still with us, but the fact of his death last year, at the age of 67, cannot help but puncture much of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden with an air of reportage from astride the grave.

I know, I know, you're weary of critics or whoever scrutinizing the final work of this or that woefully deceased artist for macabre pronouncements, but seriously, so much of this book is hopelessly – and hilariously – devoted to honouring the dying or coming to terms with looming mortality. From the story Triumph Over the Grave: "It's plain to you that at the time I write this, I'm not dead. But maybe by the time you read it." And it's noteworthy that, more than with any previous work, Johnson has imbued his narrators with attributes that explicitly mirror his own biography. From Doppelganger, Poltergeist: "The Past just left. Its remnants, I claim, are mostly fiction."

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Largesse echoes Jesus' Son's formal strategy in miniature, with a garland of distinct, yet related, individually titled narratives told from the same perspective. Unlike the delinquent narrator of Jesus' Son, Whitman is a sexagenarian ad man who attends social gatherings with married couples, fireplaces and complete meals. The story's motifs include widows, the palliative effects of art and visitations from a regret-hued past. One scene features a phone call from a long-estranged, now dying ex-wife – but which ex-wife? Whitman isn't certain and doesn't ask.

The Starlight on Idaho and Strangler Bob are excellent stories that would nestle snugly with earlier, ribald works in Johnson's canon. Both feature narrators doing time in institutions – a rehabilitation centre in the former, a county jail in the latter – where they encounter individuals who determine the curvature of their futures. (By the time we meet a certain Dundun in Strangler Bob, readers familiar with Johnson's work will recognize the story's narrator, here dubbed Dink, as that of Jesus' Son.) Starlight is entirely epistolary, its narrator writing to various addressees from rehab. Are these letters meant to make amends? If so, does this also apply to those addressed to Satan?

Both stories supply Johnson with abundant opportunity to engage his penchant for gallows humour. From Starlight: "In the last five years I've been arrested about eight times, shot twice, not twice on one occasion, but once on two different occasions, etc etc and I think I got run over once but I don't even remember it." The genius of Johnson lies in that "etc etc." The titular character of Strangler Bob tells of eating a T-bone steak, drinking a bottle of wine, murdering his wife, then murdering a chicken, then eating the chicken. It is unclear whether this is an argument for vegetarianism or sobriety.

In the especially elegiac Triumph, the narrator describes two separate occasions in which he becomes caregiver to a deathward friend, one an aging writer living in rural Texas and visited by ghosts, his restless fingers resembling "eight dancer's legs clothed in droopy stockings of flesh," the other a giant named Link, as in, perhaps, "missing," or, perhaps, as vestibule to another realm.

Link is visited on his deathbed by a dementia-afflicted ex-wife who greets everyone with "Hello, stranger." The final moments of this story form a poignant intersection of goofball curiosity and absolute tenderness.

Doppelganger, Poltergeist concerns a decades-long friendship between Kevin Harrington, an educator, critic and failed poet, and Mark Ahearn, a younger, successful poet Harrington admires but who is secretly, ghoulishly preoccupied with a conspiracy theory regarding Elvis Presley. " 'I discount his theory,' Harrington says, 'but I value the obsession.' " The story is lousy with twins: twin Presleys, twin Ahearns, the Twin Towers. But the real twin here, the one that matters with regards to Ahearn's psychic upkeep, is Harrington, who happens to be the same age as Ahearn's dead older brother. (And, it follows, the dead older brother's long-dead twin.)

Harrington is one of Johnson's beautiful losers, at one point describing his situation as consisting of inept teaching, fraudulent poetry, a confused marriage and combusting finances. Yet, unlike the characters in Angels, The Stars at Noon, Already Dead or Nobody Move, Johnson doesn't place Harrington in extreme situations to illustrate his mire. There is mention in this story's final pages of mania easing the pressure of genius. In these last stories, Johnson largely eschews the mania that ran rampant through so much of his most celebrated work, letting the genius emanate unencumbered.

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José Teodoro is a critic and playwright.

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