Johnson wrote five stunning stories about life and death before passing away last year.
“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” one of the five stories included in Denis Johnson’s book of the same name, has emerged as a distinctly aching read in the years since it was first published by The New Yorker in 2014. Divided into 10 sections and centered on an ad agent named Bill Whitman, it’s an exquisite portrait of a man contending with late middle age, humanely reflecting on past experiences and relationships — both fleeting and pivotal — as they come to him. He revisits his friendship with an eccentric painter who took his own life; he describes his distant relationship with his wife, after mournfully atoning for his previous marital sins with a dying ex. He presents himself as a man implicitly preparing for his final act in life.
Johnson, it turned out, would write this character and tell this story in his own final act. The award-winning author died last May from liver cancer, shortly after he’d completed The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: a masterful original story collection which is now being published posthumously. That it takes the name of this specific tale, about reflection and closure — and about a man who, like Johnson, was twice-divorced — is not only fitting. In “Largesse,” Johnson fully recreates a life lived, however occasionally sorrowful or dull or strange. He narrows the figurative distance between author and reader, offering a sharpened sense of the finite that’s felt across every page.
Johnson has never been short on acclaim, of course: His 1992 short story collection Jesus’ Son is a landmark of American fiction, his 2007 novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award, and before all that, in 1981, he won the National Poetry Series Award. Further, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that, with this book, Johnson has only cemented his status as one of his generation’s greatest writers. This would be true even if he were still with us: Each story in Largesse is weighted by an astonishing humanity, a generosity of spirit that’s evened out by lyrical dissections of time’s passage and the mysteries of connection. But in the aftermath of Johnson’s death, absorbing this particular work makes for an especially cathartic experience.
Indeed, it’s not just “Largesse” that has an eye on mortality, or a mission to find a kind of jagged peace. There are narrative patterns between each of the five stories which powerfully unify the book in theme and feeling. Many of them feature protagonists meditating on the people who matter — or mattered, at one point — the most to them in their lives: a self-destructive man recovering in rehab writes letters to his loved ones in “The Starlight on Idaho”; a convict makes new acquaintances in prison while recalling, with macabre humility, on those he’s lost in “Strangler Bob”; and most poignantly, an aging writer hallucinates those he once knew who have since died in “Triumph Over the Grave.” The memories of people beyond their grasp range from wistful to caustic to surreal.
Tellingly, these characters ruminate on their encounters with art in profound and edifying ways. “All through his house were scattered twigs and feathers possessing a mysterious significance, rocks that had spoken to him, stumps of driftwood whose faces he recognized,” Bill so vividly remembers of Tony Fido, his painter friend who killed himself, in “Largesse.” “And in any direction, his canvases like windows opening onto lightning and smoke, ranks of crimson demons and flying angels, gravestones on fire, and scrolls, chalices, torches, swords.” In “Triumph,” meanwhile, gothic imagery emanates out of the protagonist’s fixation on a novelist, who at one point locks eyes with the dead family members scattered on his vast Texas ranch. For Johnson’s characters, art and storytelling provide windows of understanding into human nature; it’s a lovely and timeless sentiment, one that was no doubt shared by the author himself.
Every one of these stories — as well as the fascinating standalone “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” about the increasingly bizarre relationship between a professor and his student (oh, and Elvis) — can be interpreted independently. But that they collectively, in their gorgeous mundanity, mark something of a departure for Johnson, typically an aggressive depictor of life on the fringes, feels like no accident. Here’s an author turning toward the past, conjuring up the ghosts of those he’s loved and lost, writing of wild experiences with affectionate abandon. Few have linked themselves between the reader and the page so intimately — so cosmically — as he does here. You’ll find Johnson in each passage of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, feel his essence overlap with each character’s. “The world keeps turning,” the aging writer says at the very end of “Triumph,” addressing his reader. “It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.” A