Denis Johnson first gained acclaim for the stories in “Jesus’ Son” and putting out several novels and collections of stories and poetry. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2002 and won the National Book Award in 2007 for “The Tree of Smoke,” an immense novel set during the Vietnam War. My first exposure to Johnson was in his novella “Train Dreams” – a mesmerizing, atmospheric masterpiece that transports the reader back to the untamed northwest and the building of the intercontinental railroad. Yet, this was chronologically out of order, and I didn’t yet realize how much Johnson was revered as a writer.
In “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” it’s as if you’re getting glimpses of Johnson’s life flashing in front of his eyes. It is a reflective work, meditating on loss and the passing of time, questioning God, recalling moments of wonder and despair. In one passage, his narrator muses, "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."
Characters and situations appear as if out of a dream – a dying, aging mentor in the twilight of a career, a tempestuous addict reaching out to those who have a “hook in his heart," the ghost of Elvis. In one scene, during a drunken night, a friend holds a priceless piece of artwork above the flames in the fireplace. In another, he finds himself on a walk in the middle of the night in a quieted, snowy street in New York City, and in yet another, he serves a short sentence and describes every last detail of a group of inmates. This experience made him wonder if life was “some kind of intersection for souls … it makes me feel each person's universe is really very small, no bigger than a county jail, a collection of cells in which he encounters the same fellow prisoners over and over. … I think they may have been not human beings, but wayward angels."
The short story is often described as the most difficult form to write well. The Scottish writer Ali Smith said, “Short stories consume you faster. They’re connected to brevity. With the short story, you are up against mortality. I know how tough they are as a form, but they’re also a total joy.” Johnson’s last pieces of writing capture this sentiment. As the reader of his stories, we are consumed faster, carried breathtakingly along, and he was consumed as a writer, knowing he was dying while he wrote and not living to see the publication of this last book. Yet despite his hardships you get the feeling that his every moment of being was something akin to magic and joy, for the sheer experience of it all.
This review originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News on February 8, 2018.
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