BOOK REVIEW: The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson

I read Angels but the subject matter seemed too familiar. The beautiful losers may as well have been reading Beautiful Losers on the bus. And I gave up on the acclaimed novella Train Dreams.

But Jesus’ Son has long been one of my most cherished books. The title is from a Lou Reed song, and the book was also made into a half decent film, but without enough of the lightning strikes in Johnson’s prose. I’ve never read his poetry or his long novels like the monumental Tree of Smoke but in Jesus’ Son I thought he had found perfection.

The title story of this, Johnson’s second and final collection of short stories, is a series of flash fictions put together, and as with the collection as a whole it is about aftermaths, fragments, interesting things that happened and damaged people physically and/or mentally. A soldier back from Afghanistan wants a woman to kiss the remainder of the leg.

In another story, a character is talking to a dead man’s wife through a peep show window. Later in this story we get Johnson in a nutshell: ‘Then, as sometimes happens in a San Diego café – more often than you’d think – we were interrupted by a woman selling roses.’ Poetry in the presence of death, or put another way, Johnson’s vision of life itself, his take on the world as a writer, what Johnson’s teacher Raymond Carver called the writer’s ‘unique way of looking at things’. If Flannery O’Connor said short stories were about the ‘mystery of existence’ then Johnson’s stories are about the magic in that mystery. The magic of dreams, hallucinations, long walks late at night.

The terrifying ‘Strangler Bob’ has a face that ‘began to boil and writhe’, while another character ‘marched around with vicious movements, crushing hallucinatory animals.’ Later ‘we heard a delicate sound – like an old-fashioned clock in a nineteen-thirties movie tinkling distantly in the building’s sleep’. This is the kind of writing that inspires.

In ‘Starlight on Idaho’ what seems a cheesy title turns on its head when you realize The Starlight is an addiction recovery centre – typical Johnson. The character writes a series of letters to people in his past, and the epistolary form is used to grand effect. This is a great short story, a classic, one for the anthologies. To take just one sentence as example: Last week here in Number 8 I had a train-jumper wino roommate with slashed-up shoes and a tattoo on his arm that said Eat Fuck Kill. Not many writers are capable of sentences like that, especially those that have just come through the education system and not lived a life.

The theme of doubles recurs throughout this collection of five long stories. ‘Triumph Over the Grave’ is perhaps the weakest story in the collection, a rambling tale about the decline of old writers, but the prophetic final line brings a lump to the throat.

The ‘doubles’ theme is most fully manifest in the final story ‘Doppelganger, Poltergeist’. There’s also a startling moment when we end up in the midst of 9/11 and Johnson’s narrator writes, Cop cars and ambulances heaped with dust and chunks of concrete came at us out of the south. I started walking that direction, I don’t know why, but I soon realized I was the only person heading downtown, and then the tide of panic pressing towards me was too heavy to go against, and I turned around and let it take me north.

Johnson headed downtown and pulled back from the brink, and wrote about that brink with luminous, lingering grace. When a writer dies and leaves us with a book like this, there’s nothing to be sad about. From the sublime ‘Starlight on Idaho’: I’m not the type to trudge along, I’m the type to come shooting off the block, get twenty yards ahead of everybody else, and go stumbling and sprawling off onto the sidelines with a collapsed lung. God love you Denis Johnson.

The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden is published by Jonathan Cape and is available to purchase here.

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Denis Johnson

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Denis Johnson was the author of nine novels, one novella, two books of short stories, five collections of poetry, two collections of plays, and one book of reportage. Among other honors, his novel Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award and was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, and Train Dreams was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.

Reviewed by Neil Campbell 

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