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.
A 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.