The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories
(Random House, 2018)
Years ago I attended a week-long writers’ workshop in Portland, Oregon. Denis Johnson was a special guest, but instead of just showing up for his featured reading, he hung out most of the week on the patio in front of the cafeteria playing an acoustic guitar. He was friendly, approachable and we spoke a few times—not at length—he seemed concerned that I didn’t care much for a song he was trying to play (The Byrds) and told me he loved my cowboy shirts (I was going through a phase). We didn’t talk writing much but did talk tattoos and Elvis. (I have a large Elvis tattoo.) Later, he signed my battered copy of Jesus’ Son with these words “Write like your life depends on it.”
Denis Johnson (1949-2017) was, as many critics would agree, one of the most important American writers of the last several decades. While many cite Jesus’ Son (1992) as his best work (it is likely his best-known), he wrote nine novels, a few plays, several essays, and many volumes of poetry. As with all art, taste in writing is subjective, and although I’ve tried a few times, I never could get through Johnson’s National Book Award winner Tree of Smoke (2007). I also had difficulties with Angels (1983) with its twinned themes of punishment and redemption, the prose in Angels just doesn’t sing for me the way it does in the weighty and weird Already Dead: a California Gothic (1997), the brief but superb The Name of the World (2000), or the strange quiet beauty of Resuscitation of a Hanged Man (1991).
Whichever your favorites among Johnson’s work, we can all learn a thing or two from him about how to write compelling dialogue, how to describe a woman, how to write addiction, obsession, and heartache. His descriptions of the California redwoods in Already Dead have stayed with me for years and no one, not even Joan Didion, comes close to capturing the overwhelming sentient presence of those trees. Of course, one of Johnson’s greatest strengths is his characters. He often writes with voices so strong that long after I’ve finished one of his books, I keep hearing those voices and have to remind myself that they’re fictional characters and not actually people I’ve met. Johnson can also teach us a lot about paying attention to the world, to people many of us ignore; to the strange truths that come out of the mouths of addicts and nuns, or from those lost souls who end up in group therapy sessions at last-chance rehab centers and mental hospitals.
In his latest and (likely last) collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Johnson’s voices come singing off the pages. The collection opens with an eponymous tale of a middle-aged white man (Bill “Whit” Whitman) told in a series of vignettes. It is a masterful sketch of a man lost somewhere on the road of his life and trying to find meaning through the telling of his own story. The opening scene is quintessential Johnson, as normalcy veers to weirdness and dark humor. Participants at a dinner party are sharing with each other the “loudest sounds we’d ever heard,” from a wife’s rejection to the pounding heart of a man having a coronary. A young veteran changes the topic to silence; his example—the silence of the land mine that took off his lower leg. One dinner guest asks to see his stump and he responds, “I’ll show you . . . if you kiss it.” This opening salvo draws us in and Whit points an accusatory finger at us all, “But you want to see how this sort of thing turns out. How often will you witness a woman kissing an amputation?” And so, we do see it and we’re told that Chris (the amputee) and Deirdre (the kisser) get married six months later.
Johnson presents Whit as a man both removed from and deeply involved in pondering life. At one point Whit “was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life—the distance I’ve traveled from my own youth, the persistence of old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms—that I almost crashed the car.” At moments like these Johnson’s prose is transcendent: gracefully and efficiently linking one man’s existence to the common experience in one perfectly constructed sentence.
In “Farewell,” Whit answers a call from one of his ex-wives who tells him she is dying. He bares his soul thinking it’s his first wife Ginny, confessing, “After forty years of silence, about the many other ways I’d stolen her right to the truth.” He becomes confused as to whether he’s talking to Ginny or his second wife, Jenny, and “suddenly didn’t know which set of crimes I was regretting, wasn’t sure if this dying farewell clobbering me to my knees in true repentance beside the kitchen table was Virginia’s or Jennifer’s.” Whit’s current wife is away and he goes to bed alone, waking much later to go out walking in the night. Johnson draws us in again with masterful use of the second person, “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.” Whit is both connected to us, to humanity, and yet also disconnected—not knowing which wife he’s speaking to, and as is the case with so many of Johnson’s characters, lost and searching for “the Mystery.”
In “Widow,” Whit tells us about his friend Tom Ellis, a writer, who met a woman married to a man on Death Row. Ellis regrets not having slept with the woman and the two men eventually “wandered into a discussion of the difference between repentance and regret. You repent the things you’ve done, and regret the chances you let get away.” And in “Memorial,” Whit attends a memorial for an acquaintance, Tony Fido, a man who Whit remembers saying once, “We live in a catastrophic universe—not a universe of gradualism.”
Along with his characters musings on the nature of existence, there are epiphanic moments in this collection: at one point in “Mermaid,” Whit finds himself walking through a snow-covered Manhattan and comes to rest in a bar empty except for an invisible piano player, a bartender, and a glamorous blonde in an evening gown weeping. Whit tells us, “I felt the ecstasy of a dancer, but I kept still.” Whit muses on mortality, as do most of Johnson’s characters, “I note that I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn’t mind forgetting a lot more of it.” We can’t help reading Johnson’s awareness of his own mortality as he writes his final book; an awareness that appears again and again throughout the varied stories in this collection.
Devotees of Jesus’ Son will revel in the epistolary “The Starlight on Idaho”—a series of letters written by Mark “Cass” Cassandra from the Starlight Addiction and Recovery Center on Idaho Avenue. Cass is writing letters because he has “about a dozen hooks” in his heart and is “following the lines back to where they go.” As Cass travels through the hell of rehab, including delusions brought on by Antabuse, he writes to the Pope, his Grandma, the Devil, and of course, God. God it seems “has put his feet up and screwed the head off a Bud and has drifted off into a nap” while the world goes to hell. Cass’s voice shares similarities with the narrator (“Fuckhead”) in Jesus’ Son but again, what Johnson gives us isn’t just another tale of a drifting addict but a quintessentially American story. These are the people who populate our streets, our shelters, our rehab and detox centers—the lost, the forgotten, those in survival fights against “the Devil,” and the “nest of talking spiders” in their heads.
The strongest piece in the collection, “Triumph Over the Grave” starts with a man (perhaps Johnson) eating at a diner counter, studying the other customers in a large mirror. He tells us that one of the women seems “very familiar” and decides she might be related to the wife of a friend of his. He calls his friends: Robert and Nan, but when Nan answers, he’s told “there’s a family emergency”—Robert has just died of a heart attack. As he hangs up the phone, the woman who looks so familiar gets a phone call—presumably from Nan. The narrator then heads back to the hospital where his friend Link is “dying, but he didn’t like to admit it.” While the narrator waits for Link, he writes, telling us that “it’s easy work. The equipment isn’t expensive, and you can pursue this occupation anywhere.” As a writer, “Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light.” And this is just what Johnson is doing”—writing about his life, the lives of people he’s known, his living, and his own dying.
The story shifts to an end-of-life narrative of a once-famous American novelist, Darcy Miller, who lives in an old house on an abandoned ranch in Austin. His three novels are out of print, his articles and essays remain uncollected, and only one of his scripts ever became a film. The narrator is teaching at the university in Austin (like Johnson) and takes his creative writing class out to visit Miller. But his students only see Miller’s “exile” and “not his battered nobility.” Several weeks later, a mutual writer friend asks the narrator to go see Darcy. Now sixty-seven (the age at which Johnson died), Miller has become a worry to his friends. He claims to be troubled by a visit from his long-dead brother and sister in-law. On the drive out to Miller’s house, the narrator stops to open one of a series of gates and is “overwhelmed by a clear, complete appreciation of the physical distance behind me” deftly placing us in the Texas landscape and also setting the scene for what is to come. Vultures orbit above the house “on spiral currents” looking “no more substantial than burning pages.” We learn that Miller’s situation is “a lot like the destiny I’d pictured for myself . . . a washed-up writer with books and movies and affairs and divorces behind him and nothing to show for it now, eking out a last few years—drinking, sinking.” But his younger self had seen this as romantic because “it didn’t smell like urine and alcoholic vomit.” Miller is dying, and although he eventually agrees to go to a doctor, the morning of the appointment he doesn’t answer his phone. We soon learn that Miller has fallen and is “something short of dead.” For the narrator, the silence after the ambulance leaves is the “kind of silence following a slap in the face.”
Once he’s in the ER, the narrator acknowledges (and here again we can’t help but think of Johnson’s own illness), the “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 these visits to emergency rooms and clinics increased in frequency and by now have become commonplace” until they include him as well, “the tests, forms, interviews, exams, the journeys into the machines” and finally the trip to the private room where the narrator leaves Miller, “the doors closed, and I didn’t see him again ever.”
Of course, we can’t help but think of Johnson’s final months suffering from liver cancer, how he still had the courage to write and to write without the maudlin nostalgia that much end-of-life writing can suffer from. “Triumph Over the Grave” ends some fifteen years after Miller’s death, “in this house where Link has died and where I’ve stayed on.” The narrator tells us he’s “grown stuck in my role, it’s become my religion to carry things to and fro in the temple, and I find no reason to adjust right away to the demise of our god.” He then begins a long list of all the detritus his friend has left behind—as brutally honest end-of-life writing as any I’ve read. The story ends with the narrator telling us that even Robert’s widow Nan “took sick and passed away” but that “It doesn’t matter. The world keeps turning.” And the final punch in the gut, “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 final story in the collection is an odd sort of American fable about a writerly friendship and a poet with an unhealthy fascination with Elvis Presley. Opening on January 8, 2016—the eighty-first anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birth, the narrator (Kevin Peter Harrington) tells us it’s been two days since he learned that the poet Marcus “Mark” Ahearn was “arrested, or detained . . . for making a ruckus at the Presley family’s Graceland Mansion” where he has tried to dig up Elvis’s grave. Harrington then unfolds a tale of mentorship (he was Ahearn’s writing teacher) and Ahearn’s obsession with Elvis Presley. Ahearn is a “genuine poet” and “trafficks [sic] with the ineffable.” Harrington on first reading Ahearn’s work claims, “They were the real thing, line after line of the real thing, and as I held them in my hands a secret anguish relaxed its grip on my heart, and I accepted that I’d never be a poet, only a teacher of poets.” Although this story exists only in a world of male writers, it’s saved by its weirdness (Elvis conspiracies abound) and by Johnson’s stunning prose, “Manhattan in the 1980s had a pulse, heady, potent, but like a wound’s. Do you remember? Death-camp homeless. Guerilla vendors. Three-card monte. Trash all over the streets,” or, musing about the past, it “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.” Harrington is in New York on September 11, 2001. As with all things, Johnson handles this moment deftly: cell phones malfunction, Harrington gets a black eye in the panic to escape the subway, and when Harrington finally reaches the street, he can’t get his bearings “I saw only one tower standing to the south, and that one ringed with fire. I asked a man nearby, ‘“Where are we? I can’t see the other tower.” He said, “It fell,” and I said, “No it didn’t.” He didn’t argue.”’ The parade of ambulances streams by and he starts to walk downtown but realizes “I was the only person heading downtown, and then the tide of panic pressing me toward me was too heavy to go against, and I turned around and let it take me north.” There is a break in the narrative and then it slides back to Ahearn and his obsession and attendant conspiracy theory, Harrington claims, “I discount his theory, but I value the obsession.” Later, when Ahearn says, “I haven’t seen you since the death of the Twins,” of course he means the Twin Towers although the connection is intended to the twin Presleys and, we learn, of twin Ahearns, too. The weirdness of this story is framed within a broader discussion of writing, of poetry, of the importance of words but also the relative weight of words in the broader story of life, “when he was my student, I told Marcus Ahearn he wrote wonderfully. He said it wasn’t the most important thing he did.” And in closing, Ahearn writes to his former teacher, “Life after death, ghosts, Paradise, eternity—of course, we take all that as granted. Otherwise where’s the fun?” And he signs off with “Peace, Love, Elvis.”