It can be difficult to read, let alone write about, a posthumous work by a beloved writer. For one thing, such books are often not very good: Consider the lovingly, if haphazardly, collected omnibus of oddments the writer might not have bothered publishing, had they lived; the perpetually incomplete would-be masterpiece wrangled into semi-coherence by well-meaning editors; the half-written draft brought to Frankensteinian life by a collaborator. We read such books with skepticism as well as sorrow; we wonder if our memory of the writer might have been better, purer, had we elected to abstain. Yet we can’t look away. And even if the book is legitimate, fully authored and authorized by its stated creator, and actually, miraculously excellent, we read it through the strange prism of its lastness. Like it or not, it’s the punctuation mark at the end of the writer’s career, and we’ll have to accept that it might serve more as ellipsis or question mark than exclamation point. All the work we hoped the writer might create—every literary apparition we’ve imagined, with the ridiculous but still palpable sense that it might somehow be realized—must be put to rest, so that we can face this final artifact. And once we’ve read it, the writer is truly gone.
I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that Denis Johnson died last year. His career was so idiosyncratic, his talents so enormous, so mercurial, that it seemed as though he might be able to produce a brilliant practically anything; you could imagine him writing books forever, in his mutable way, surprising you every time. The son of a State Department official, Johnson was born in Germany and spent his childhood in Washington, DC, and abroad. Before he’d even finished college, he had already published his first book of poems, The Man Among the Seals, in 1969. After a few years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and two more poetry collections, Johnson published his first novel, Angels, a stylish, gritty love story showcasing the kinds of outcasts, addicts, and criminals who would populate his fiction for the rest of his life.
Johnson’s next decade was a slow burn: Fiskadoro, a hallucinatory novel of nuclear Armageddon; The Stars at Noon, a wild, broken pseudo-thriller set in Nicaragua; Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, a dreamy neo-noir set in Provincetown; and more poems. But even as Johnson became famous in the 1990s, after the publication of his collection of linked short stories, Jesus’ Son, he was as likely to puzzle as to astound. It wasn’t that his books failed to conform to expectations; it was that his talent was too slippery to set them in the first place.
Already Dead, possibly the most eagerly anticipated book of his career, turned out to be a barely coherent exercise in gothic horror; The Name of the World, a gently mournful picaresque set in academia; and Tree of Smoke, a sprawling, wildly plotted Vietnam War saga that chronicled the misery, comedy, and chaos of that conflict through a cast of eccentric characters. After that, we got a series of slimmer works of fiction: the crime story Nobody Move, the historical novella Train Dreams, and a nihilistic buddy novel set in Africa, The Laughing Monsters.
Though Johnson was too well-known to be called a writer’s writer, other writers held him in particular esteem, in part because of his reputation as a kind and generous peer, but also because we all celebrated and envied his boldly multifarious career. Of course, the work we all loved best was Jesus’ Son. Unassuming in presentation and readable in one sitting, the book was narrated in a gently self-deprecating, conversational style by a protagonist who, though unnamed, sheepishly lets it be known that people call him “Fuckhead.” Showcasing the chaotic, serendipitous lives of the disaffected and down-and-out, Jesus’ Son told their tales in prose that felt both extemporaneous and beautifully, precisely constructed. And the plot twists were legendary: Recall the strangely flirtatious Polish guy on the ferry in “The Other Man,” who steps away for a moment, only to return without his accent… or the man in “Emergency” who strolls into the hospital with a knife sticking out of his eye… or the unexplained passage, in “Work,” of a naked woman dangling from a kite.
Even more striking were the book’s sudden swerves in diction, from the straightforward and unadorned to the wildly metaphorical and self-conscious. “Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill,” Fuckhead tells us in the daring, bewildering final lines of “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” Or the penultimate paragraph of “Emergency,” which reads: “That world! These days it’s all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?”
For those of us trying to be writers in 1992, these rhetorical feats seemed astounding. They also felt like something we ourselves could pull off if we tried, much to the detriment of our writing workshops, to which we served up sheaves of faux-intuitive short fiction. (Well—I did, anyway. Sorry, old friends.) Johnson himself didn’t help matters; he delighted in telling people that Jesus’ Son took about as long to write as it did to type. We all took this to mean that perhaps we, too, could knock out a great book in a couple of weeks.
We couldn’t, of course. Even Johnson couldn’t. Jesus’ Son was a sui generis masterpiece, the fortuitous result of decades of Johnson’s life experience and laborious work on other things. (It couldn’t have existed, I think, without those early years as a poet.) The work that followed was often very good, and sometimes superb. But, as much as Johnson’s fans enjoyed these books, they always longed for the miracle of another Jesus’ Son. “I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere,” Fuckhead tells us in “Car Crash,” a line that also describes what we all desired most: not a sequel, exactly, but something with that same breezy, epiphanic quality, something both familiar and new, something unexpectedly expected.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is that book. But it isn’t a sequel, or derivative of any of Johnson’s earlier work. It is its own perfect thing, and Lord preserve me, I think I love it every bit as much as I love Jesus’ Son.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden takes its title from an opening suite of 10 anecdotes, each narrated by the same advertising executive: a wry, observant man gently dissatisfied with his work and primarily concerned, in these pages, with the inexplicable lives of those around him. In one story, he rather jarringly refers to a group of disabled adults as “cinema zombies, but good zombies, zombies with minds and souls,” and we realize that this is how he sees all people, himself included—stumbling travelers, puzzled by life. He introduces us to a woman challenged to kiss an amputee’s stump, and tells the story of a sexual proposition passed under a men’s-room door; a memorial service produces an unexpected artifact, and a valuable painting is thrown into a fire.
Characters act in “Largesse” with evident conviction, but they don’t understand why; others may or may not be who they say they are. “His breast-tag said ‘Ted,’ ” the adman says of a stranger at a gathering, “but he introduced himself as someone else.” A phone call from a dying ex-wife results in an emotional apology… but which ex-wife was it, the one named Ginny, or the one named Jenny? These vignettes set the tone for the longer stories to come; they invite the reader to observe without judgment extremes of personality and behavior. There is also the gentleness of the adman’s narration, which carries over into the rest of Largesse; the mature Johnson, while still preoccupied with characters downtrodden, marginalized, angry, and insane, has come to view them with a greater sense of compassion. His comedy is sly now rather than shocking.
The adman is only one among many seekers in the collection; the rest of the book gives us four more. “The Starlight on Idaho” is a one-sided epistolary fiction, composed by an alcoholic man, Cass, trying to dry out in rehab. He writes to friends and family, Satan and the pope; some of the letters are rational, others delusional; some we understand to have been mailed, others never sent. “Let’s just face the music and the facts,” Cass writes to a “Dr so and so.” “Somebody’s going out of my mind.” His diction is awkward, haranguing, self-justifying, self-pitying; he repeats himself, redescribing key details, sometimes copying lines from one letter to another. His mantra is “hooks in my heart”: “I’ve got about a dozen hooks in my heart,” he tells his father and grandmother, “I’m following the lines back to where they go.” This syntactic paradox, inadvertent on Cass’s part, deliberate on Johnson’s, shows us the circularity of Cass’s thinking, the prison of his addiction and mental illness. The hooks of booze and medicine and love and anger are in him, and the lines ultimately lead back to the self. And yet it’s a hopeful story. “You should be dead,” people keep telling him, but he isn’t, and at the end, when Cass jokes that “I Should Be Dead” ought to be his epitaph, you begin to think that he just might make it.
“Strangler Bob” recalls some of Johnson’s earlier fiction, in particular Jesus’ Son. It gives us a hapless narrator enduring a brief incarceration who seems familiar to us. A couple of pages in, we realize why. “You’re the one they call Dink, right?” somebody asks him, and he replies, “I have another name.” Consider this a wink from the author; that name, we’re invited to surmise, is Fuckhead. The story is a kind of mini-picaresque, its plot twists magnified by the fishbowl that is prison life. But its real strength is its prose: Johnson fully inhabits that old ’90s voice, with its weird intuitive leaps, oblique Nabokovian metaphors, and surprising (and moving) evocations of shifting perspective. The prison is “some kind of intersection for souls” that smells like “disinfectant and something else that was meant to be killed by disinfectant.” We’re invited to see a day there as “slowly unmasking itself as a damnation without end.” A man’s face first appears blank but soon “began to boil and writhe,” while another man “allowed a terrific energy to consume and become him.” In the end, the story rushes forward into the present, where Dink confesses that “very often I sold my blood to buy wine. Because I’d shared dirty needles with low companions, my blood was diseased.” The story has crash-landed: Fuckhead is doomed.
There’s certainly a frisson in hearing from the protagonist of Jesus’ Son again, similar to the uneasy excitement of watching a favorite rock band hobble through a reunion tour. But “Strangler Bob” is best taken as a variation on the broader themes and aesthetic of the Largesse stories: bemusement, acceptance, mercy. This version of Fuckhead, close to death, takes a step back from the experiences that shaped him. He sees more clearly now, and with his resignation comes a freedom from fear.
The second half of Largesse comprises two long stories. Like everything else in the collection, the virtuoso “Triumph Over the Grave” foregrounds the act of storytelling, though here this self-consciousness assumes a ludicrous complexity, circling back, folding over on itself, twinning its characters and themes, interrogating itself in a series of droll asides. Its narrator is a writer, a Johnson-alike, who has come to San Francisco to act as an ad hoc hospice nurse and assistant to his dying friend Link. In a restaurant, the narrator spies a woman who resembles a friend’s wife, so he calls the friend, only to be told that he just died that morning of a heart attack. “I put away my phone,” the narrator tells us, “and managed to write down that much of the conversation in this journal, on this very page, before my hand started shaking so badly I had to stop.”
This gesture—a callback to the writing of the story you are now reading—is repeated a few pages later: “I took out a pen and my notebook and finished jotting a quick account of my recent trip to the restaurant…. I’ve reproduced it verbatim in the first few paragraphs above.” At first, this move feels like a lark; but as it develops, over the story’s many pages, one begins to view it as a kind of cross-examination of the self, a meditation on memory and mortality and, of course, on Johnson’s own vocation. To illustrate that he’s a writer (“I’ll write a story for you right now”), the narrator tells an anecdote about a strange knee problem he once had that ends in his unexpected employment as a prop onstage during a medical lecture. This leads him to another story about another sick friend, a novelist named Darcy Miller, and Miller’s caretaker, another writer named Gerald Sizemore—and pretty soon we’re thickly layered in narratives that are ghosts of narratives about middle-aged men caring for older men who are all writers who are not writing, and whose books may not exist.
At one point in his final days, Link sits up and insists that the room he’s in isn’t his real room. Drawing upon some impossible strength, he jumps out of bed “as if gravity had been revoked,” walks out the door and into a thunderstorm, reenters the house through another door, and declares the room right again. It is hard not to read Link as a walking metaphor for memory and the act of writing, their transformative power to push us out into the storm of feeling and bring us back with a new way of seeing. Johnson has always seemed to let his stories lead him where they want to go; in some of his less cohesive work, these wanderings can be fascinating but unsatisfying. Here, the extra layer of self-consciousness, far from complicating matters, brings them into sharper focus: Johnson’s seeking is the narrator’s seeking, is Miller’s, is Link’s, is ours.
It is fitting that the sentences in “Triumph Over the Grave,” the penultimate story in Johnson’s last collection, are some of the finest of his career. Just look at this glorious one about a wake of vultures “beleaguering a carcass too small to be seen in their midst”:
When we catch sight of one of these birds balanced and steering on the currents, its five-pound body effortlessly carried by the six-foot span of its wings and therefore not quite constituting a material fact, the earthbound soul forgets itself and follows after, suddenly airborne, but when they’re down here with the rest of us, desecrating a corpse, brandishing their wings like the overlong arms of chimpanzees, bouncing on the dead thing, tearing at it, their nude red heads looking imbecilically minuscule and also, to a degree, obscene—isn’t it sad?
This story, bristling with mini-masterpieces like that one, could serve as a fitting end to the book, and as Johnson’s final statement—his own triumph over the grave. Instead, Largesse closes with a wild, hilarious, and mordant story, “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” in which a failed writer watches a beloved student, Marcus, descend into the highly esoteric madness of Elvis Presley trutherism. Specifically, Marcus believes that Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s legendary con-man manager, had the real Elvis killed, then replaced him with Presley’s secret twin brother, who, though believed to have been stillborn, was actually whisked away and raised by their mother’s midwife. Marcus’s obsession leads him to spend thousands of dollars on specious documentation and to his arrest (grave desecration), while our narrator looks on in confusion and awe.
The story is flawlessly positioned, repackaging all the book’s themes and motifs—writers, twins, madness, memory, hauntings—as barnstorming dark comedy. It’s Fat Elvis to the earlier stories’ Hot Elvis—or, better yet, it’s an Elvis impersonator, the best you’ve ever seen. The story, and the book, and Johnson’s career all end with perhaps the silliest line the man ever wrote, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. For all the miseries Denis Johnson has chronicled—addiction and poverty, war and death, disaffection and anger—”Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” like the rest of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, invites us to remember him first and foremost with laughter.