Homeless in Texas: Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

Denis Johnson (1949-2017), The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. Jonathan Cape, 2018. 207 pp.

It’s evident in this posthumously published final collection of stories by Denis Johnson that he was aware of his nearing demise; there are frequent references to mutability, mortality and waning strength:

This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life – the distance I’ve travelled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms – that I almost crashed the car.

Johnson LargesseA little later this narrator reveals he suffers from back trouble, a pinched nerve in his spine that incapacitates him, causing ‘a dull, sort of muffled torment, or else a shapeless, confusing pain.’ That’s the startling imagery and confident, lyrical voice so typical of Johnson, taking up where he left off in his astonishing, pyrotechnic first story collection, Jesus’ Son (1992). The best of these new stories is up there with them – and that’s among the best American short fiction of the last hundred years. Most of these new stories consist of loosely tacked-together vignettes or fragmentary anecdotes that gradually cohere, illuminating what’s gone before and foreshadowing what’s to come.

The passage I just quoted is from the first and best in the book, the title story, in which an ageing ad man called Bill Whitman, ‘just shy of 63’, reflects on his successful but not entirely satisfactory life in advertising and the people who have inhabited his spaces.

In the first vignette, guests at Bill’s dinner party swap stories about ‘the loudest sounds [they’d] ever heard’. Young Chris changes the theme to silences; the most silent thing he’d known was the moment when a land mine blew off his leg on his tour of duty in Afghanistan. Deirde asks to see it:

“No, ma’am,” Chris said. “I don’t carry land mines around on my person.”

She rides his joke and repeats her request – to see the part of his leg that’s left. “I’ll show you,” he said, “if you kiss it.” She bends to do so then starts to cry; everyone feels awkward, so someone changes the subject, and the moment passes. The vignette ends with the announcement that six months later Chris and Deirdre were married ‘by a magistrate’:

Yes, they’re husband and wife. You and I know what’s going on.

This strange, deceptively colloquial direct address buttonholes the reader and tightens the already gripping hold that assertive narrative voice has established, and it’s a device that’s repeated throughout the collection with timely grace.

Later sections of this opening story become ever more disconcerting; at another dinner party the host takes a priceless painting from the wall and throws it on the fire. A chiropractor is dressed as an elf (well, it is Hallowe’en). Bill gets a call from his first wife Ginny; they’d married ‘long ago, in our early twenties’, but ‘put a stop to it after three crazy years.’ She’s called to tell him she’s dying, and to try to forgive him the hurt he’d caused her. They talk, forty years on, ‘about the many other ways I’d stolen her right to the truth.’ Then he realises he’s not sure if he’s talking to Ginny or his second wife, Jenny, so he doesn’t know ‘which set of crimes’ he’s apologising for. It’s another supreme moment of fuddled embarrassment that Johnson carries off with aplomb.

There are many more such moments in this story and in later ones. In ‘The Starlight on Idaho’ a young man in rehab writes letters in fizzing demotic prose to the people with ‘hooks in his heart’ – most of them dysfunctional losers, like him; one of them is Satan. Near the end he reflects on his life after jail in what sounds like the lyrics to an early Tom Waits song:

Just to sketch out the last four years – broke, lost, detox, homeless in Texas, shot in the ribs by a thirty-eight, mooching off the charity of dad in Ukiah, detox again, run over (I think, I’m pretty sure, I can’t remember) then shot again, and detox right now one more time again.

The title of the story ‘Strangler Bob’ is the name of one of a weird collection of prison inmates surrounding the protagonist, an eighteen-year-old serving a sentence for stealing and crashing a car. It’s the 60s, so we’re in similar territory to Jesus’ Son. All his cellmates are as outlandish as him: addicts, murderers and psychos. Hallucinatory drugs are smuggled in and ingested. Strangler Bob tells how he had a meal with his wife ‘and then I sort of killed her a little bit.’ The heroin addiction the narrator endures later in the dark part of his life is also reminiscent of Johnson’s beaten-up junky protagonist Fuckhead in that first collection.

In ‘Triumph Over the Grave’ the narrator, presumably with the insouciance of irony, reflects how easy it is to write fiction. There are several deaths, then he’s told he too is dying:

It doesn’t matter. The world keeps turning. It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.

Yet in addition to the Beat/Hippy/Junky aspects, these haunting, elegiac stories are redolent of the powerful Christian faith of their author, who’d kicked his various addictions by the early 80s. That other Johnson obsession, Elvis, is the subject of the strange final tale in which conspiracy theories about the singer’s stillborn twin not having died, but lived on to replace the real, murdered Elvis, are counterpointed with other doppelganger/poltergeist stories involving the English professor narrator, who may or may not also have a ghost twin existence in his life, his talented poet student (who comes up with the murdered/haunting Elvis theories), and the Twin Towers.

Summarising them doesn’t do these stories justice. They are to be experienced rather than read. I wrote a valedictory piece on Johnson back in May last year, in which I discussed Jesus’ Son, Train Dreams and Tree of Smoke.

Penzance, Egypt, Denis Johnson and Gandhi

Mrs TD and I stayed Saturday night after our visit to Tate St Ives in Penzance, seven or eight miles away across the ancient granite-boulder-studded West Penwith moors (see my posts on DH Lawrence and this part of Cornwall), just a few doors down from one of the most extraordinary buildings in the southwest, if not in England: the Egyptian House, Chapel Street –

Egyptian House Penzance

The façade

Early C19 stucco Egyptian extravagance. 3 storeys. 3 windows Battered half round corded pilasters, windows and glazing bars. Lotus bud columns flanking entrance. Coved cornices above windows. 2 obelisk caryatids. A coat of arms crowned by an eagle. Heavy coved crowning cornice. [Historic England website description (it has Grade I Listed status – for its ‘special architectural or historic interest’)]

 

It was built ca 1835 in the Egyptian Revival style – which became popular after the Napoleonic campaigns in Egypt, and his defeat by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, bringing the culture of ancient Egypt into the European consciousness. Napoleon had taken a scientific investigative team with him on his campaign, and they began publishing the results of their studies into the sites and artefacts of Egypt in 1809. But Egyptian style had been imitated in European architecture and design to a lesser degree ever since the Renaissance. Here’s a detail of that amazing façade:

Egyptian House Penzance

The main central façade

The Landmark Trust, which owns the building, rents out three apartments there as holiday accommodation. The house was built originally as a museum and geological repository. The Trust is a charity ‘that rescues important buildings that would otherwise be lost’ (their website).

Egyptian House portico

The portico

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We stayed at Artist Residence hotel, ‘a slice of eccentric charm’ as it describes itself, 22 rooms designed in eclectic taste, full of quirky features like a cobbler’s last acting as toilet roll holder in the en suite bathroom, or ‘distressed’ ancient French-style wooden window shutters which serve as the wardrobe doors. There are several hotels in this group across England; the first was started in Brighton, and was named because the young owner couldn’t afford to renovate the place, so invited the thriving local artistic community to come and decorate in return for board. This principle is what gives each location its own individual, innovative and engagingly idiosyncratic identity.

It was a delightful place to relax in after the rigours and excitement of the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the Tate St Ives during the day on Saturday, about which I wrote here yesterday.

I took with me to read Denis Johnson’s last book, a collection of short stories published in 2018 posthumously (he died last year). I’m about halfway through, and the style and subject matter are very like the gritty realism of Jesus’ Son, his 1992 collection whose title from the Velvet Underground song ‘Heroin’ says it all.

Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

I wrote an elegiac piece for him here a week after his death, with a brief note on the four of his works I’d read at that time.

This new collection has his usual lyrical and hypnotic style and strung-out characters. I hope to post about it fairly soon, once I clear the backlog of posts on books already finished: there’s a May Sinclair and the Miklós Bánffy Transylvanian Trilogy.

Just to finish, I’d like to illustrate the lovely bookmark Mrs TD brought me back from her recent trip with her sister to India. She bought it at the Mahatma Gandhi museum in Delhi; it’s a delicate filigree representation of the great man in his loincloth, walking with his long stick.

Gandhi bookmark

It’s a humbling and inspiring way to mark my progress through my books.

 

Denis Johnson r.i.p.

I hadn’t intended posting today, but couldn’t let the passing of Denis Johnson last week go unacknowledged here.

Born in 1949, he was a product of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was taught by Raymond Carver. The influence of this seminal ‘dirty realist’ shows, although Johnson, also a poet, doesn’t just write that tough, stripped-to-bone minimalist prose – although he’s very good at it – he’s also capable of glorious poetic flights of language.

Denis Johnson I’ve read four of his books. By far my favourite is the earliest of them: his short story collection Jesus’ Son (1992). With its title taken from one of Lou Reed’s grittier drug songs, it’s about a bunch of drifters, vagabonds, addicts and dreamers who hang around mostly in the Pacific Northwest of America.

Try ‘Emergency’, which is brimming with Johnson’s exuberant weirdness. Here’s how it opens:

I’d been working in the emergency room for about three weeks, I guess. This was in 1973, before the summer ended. With nothing to do on the overnight shift but batch the insurance reports from the daytime shifts, I just started wandering around, over to the coronary-care unit, down to the cafeteria, et cetera, looking for Georgie, the orderly, a pretty good friend of mine. He often stole pills from the cabinets.

They clumsily tend to a man with a knife in his eye. Drive out in the desert and pick up an enigmatic hitch-hiker. There’s a hallucinatory drive-in cinema. A pregnant roadkill rabbit. Here’s a typical snatch of dialogue with the hitch-hiker.

‘Who’s this guy?’ Georgie asked.

‘This is Hardee. He lived with me last summer. I found him on the doorstep. What happened to your dog?’ I asked Hardee.

‘He’s still down there.’

‘Yeah, I heard you went to Texas.’

‘I was working on a bee farm,’ Hardee said.

‘Wow. Do those things sting you?’

‘Not like you’d think,’ Hardee said. ‘You’re part of their daily drill. It’s all part of a harmony.’

Denis Johnson His novella Train Dreams (2012) is less grimy, but still rugged. It’s set in the American west in the early twentieth century. A good place to start with the longer fiction – but still only 116 pp.

I wrote in passing HERE a while ago about his epic Vietnam novel Tree of Smoke (2007), which I found a little patchy, but still very powerful. I seem to have mislaid my copy, so there’s no picture here.

That leaves The Name of the World (2000) and his most recent novel, The Laughing Monsters (2015), a sort of existential thriller in the Graham Greene manner, set in various countries in Africa.

His was one of the most distinctive voices in modern fiction; a great loss to literature.

Mayhem, maiming, ravens and rapine: some etymology

When I began this blog nearly two years ago it was with a notion of writing about the world of words and literature in general. Subsequently my early posts were on a range of topics, from reviews of Javier Marías’ ‘Your Face Tomorrow’ trilogy to unusual vocabulary in Eliot and Byron (orioles, becaficas) to strange engravings in obscure nineteenth-century Portuguese travel books about west Africa. In the last year, though, most of my posts have been book reviews.

I never intended this blog to become just another book-review site – though such matter will always dominate what I write, in keeping with what I’m reading at the time – but I’d like to maintain an element of novelty and surprise.

Today then I came across an entry in an old notebook – which is where several of my early posts originated – about Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. I felt inspired, and looked out a couple of reviews I’d saved. From there I returned to Burton’s book-length Preface, and an hour later had still not written a word. A little ironic, really: it’s a book that arises from what its author ruefully describes as ‘an unconstant unsettled mind’, liable to ‘rove abroad’, ‘taste of every dish and sip of every cup’ —  it’s a ramble, in other words, through everything to be found in an early seventeenth-century library – and I find myself no nearer to a line of critical approach than I was when I set out.

So I’m going to plunder another entry in the same notebook. I hope to return to Burton some time soon. This enables me to do something I’ve not done on this blog for a long time: look at some words and anatomise them.

Before I start, a word about other forthcoming projects. I’m reading Alfred Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, and making pretty slow progress in an intriguing novel that’s clearly influenced by Joyce’s Ulysses, and therefore can’t be read quickly. I also received in the post the other day my copy of Denis Johnson’s new novel, Laughing Monsters. So those two should keep me occupied here for a while.

The first word that I want to examine is MAYHEM. The OED’s first entry for it as a noun is:

  1. ‘Criminal Law. The infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair or destroy that person’s capacity for self-defence; an instance of this. Also fig. Now hist.‘ Its first citation is from the Rolls of Parliament in 1447. I was surprised to see that its more familiar use

‘Orig. U.S. Violent behaviour, esp. physical assault’, is first cited here:

  1. ‘1870   ‘M. Twain’ in Territorial Enterprise 20 Jan. 1/1   This same man..pantingly threatened me with permanent disfiguring mayhem, if ever again I should introduce his name into print.’ Its next citation is from a report in the Times from 1930 of ‘brigandage…mayhem and murder’ in New York ‘and its vicinity’. Plus ça change…Next is
  2. ‘Rowdy confusion, chaos, disorder. Freq. in to cause (also make) mayhem . Also fig.’ First cited:

1976   Daily Mirror 15 Mar. 24/4 (caption)    Without wishin’ to cast nasturtiums on your worm—I feel he’s not goin’ to make much mayhem today.

 

It derives from Middle English maheym ‘maim’, from French legal usage maihem, itself derived from Anglo-French mahain or mahaim, originally signifying a ‘lasting wound or bodily injury’; and ‘Subsequently: an injury to the body which causes the loss of a limb, or of the use of it; a… mutilating wound’. Its ultimate etymology is ‘uncertain’:  ‘Compare post-classical Latin mahemium, maamium… mayhem, maiming (from late 12th cent. in British sources), Italian magagna defect, infirmity (late 13th cent.).’ Other sources claim it’s akin to Germanic meidem, gelding, ON meitha, to injure.

 

Corvus corax: the raven (Wikimedia Commons)

Next is RAVENOUS. This apparently derives from OF ravineus, equivalent to ‘raviner’ – to RAVEN, ie take by force; this derives from vulgar Latin rapinare, from earlier Latin rapina, plunder. OED has this: ‘Compare Old French ravineux, ravinos, rabinos rapid, impetuous (late 12th cent.)….’ This produced English ravin, an act of rapine or robbery, plunder, pillaging (first cited c. 1325).

 

How did it come to mean what it does now? Here’s the OED again:

 

  1. ‘a) Originally: (of an animal) given to seizing other animals as prey; predatory; ferocious. Later: (of an animal or person; also of the appetite, hunger, etc.) voracious, gluttonous.’ (First cited ?1387). Here are the first two citations of its now customary primary meaning:
  2. ‘Exceedingly hungry; famished.’ Citations:

‘1648   T. Stephens tr. Statius  Thebais v. 131   Hircanian tygers so the herds inclose, In Scythian plaines, whom morning hunger does Rouse up, and th’ ravenous whelps roare for their paps.

1719   D. Defoe Farther Adventures Robinson Crusoe 201,   I got up ravenous.’

 

The name of the large corvine bird ‘raven’ appears to come via a different, Scandinavian-Germanic route; in its various forms it was spelt hrafn (OI), hraben (OHG), etc., maybe reflecting an imitation of its guttural call.

And that’s it for today. Probably more than enough etymology for one post.

 Picture credit: “Corvus corax ad berlin 090516” by Accipiter (R. Altenkamp, Berlin) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Corvus_corax_ad_berlin_090516.jpg

Zoris, woodpeckers and Carignan

Cover of UK version; photo Guardian newspaper

Cover of UK version; photo Guardian newspaper

In Denis Johnson’s epic novel Tree of Smoke (2007), a densely plotted existential Conradian thriller set in Vietnam and elsewhere in S.E. Asia from 1963 to the present day, a character with the wonderful name of Carignan goes to wash in a river in Mindanao in the Philippines:

‘wearing his zoris and underclothes’

I didn’t know what a zori was, so looked it up; this is what the OED entry says:

Japanese, < grass, (rice) straw + ri footwear, sole

With pl. concord. Japanese thonged sandals with straw (or leather, wood, etc.) soles.

The first citation dates from 1823 (from a book about Japan); the most recent is from 1984 (a text from the British Judo Association’s Coaching Award Scheme: ‘Zori (flip-flops) are compulsory wear at BJA events…’

Zori image

From J-Life website where we’re told that the pair illustrated are made from ‘real igusa grass’ and called Tatami/Zori…which led me to check out

Tatami.   OED:  1. A rush-covered straw mat which is the usual floor-covering in Japan and the size of which (approx. six feet by three feet) functions as a standard unit in room measurement.  (Citations begin 1614; the most recent is: ‘1981   G. MacBeth Kind of Treason ix. 92   He relaxed on the tatami and spoke with polite approval of the cousin’s tsuba.’

Tatami was originally a luxury mat used mostly by Japanese nobility.  As their aristocratic houses were mainly wooden, Tatami was highly prized as floor cover and for seating.  As the architectural style of homes developed, Tatami became more widely popular with the general public.  It’s valued for its texture, unique elasticity, and has excellent moisture absorbing and discharging functions, achieved by weaving in the natural rush grass, igusa.

‘A recent study has found that the scent of Igusa as an effect aromatherapy. We would like not only Japanese but people throughout the world to try our Tatami that has such excellent features. Igusa-mono was developed as a new stylish Tatami blended into overseas living spaces…’ (From the website igusa-mono.com)

If you’ve read anything else on this blog you’ll know I’m fascinated by words, so naturally I looked at unfamiliar words nearby in my Chambers dictionary; this is what I came across:

ZYGODACTYL/OUS: ‘with toes arranged in pairs, two facing forwards and two backwards…eg woodpeckers’ (adj.  and n.)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (RSPB website)

Great Spotted Woodpecker (RSPB website)

A pair of GSWs often visits my birdfeeder in the garden: they’re very fond of peanuts.  Handsome birds, but very shy – they hide behind tree trunks if they think they’re being watched.