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Posthumously Published 'Sea Maiden' Affirms Denis Johnson's Eternal Voice

Jan 9, 2018
Originally published on January 10, 2018 11:17 am

Denis Johnson's posthumous short story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is full of last calls to his readers signaling, "Hurry up please, it's time." Take these eerie sentences spoken by the narrator of a story called "Triumph Over the Grave":

It's plain to you that at the time I write this, I'm not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.

Of course, those sentences leap off the page because Johnson himself is now dead, carried off by liver cancer in May of 2017 at the age of 67.

Johnson always named Walt Whitman as one of his core influences and you can hear Whitman throughout this whole collection. Like those direct addresses to his future readers that Whitman scatters throughout Leaves of Grass, Johnson, in these stories, anticipates talking across the abyss that separates the quick from the dead.

In his gritty way, Johnson was a believer in transcendence. His 1992 collection of linked short stories, Jesus' Son, which many critics and readers have anointed as his masterpiece, is about junkies and losers, crashing their way along American highways, searching for redemption and finding it — sort of.

The five stories in this new collection are stand-alones, but they all share an explicit awareness that Death is in the neighborhood. Most of these stories are terrific, and two — the first and the last — are out-of-this-world.

I say this not out of deference to the recently deceased, but in awe. When Johnson wrote at reckless full force, his sentences and storylines blasted barriers, discovering those odd places where, as one of his narrators here says, "the Mystery winks at you."

That line comes from the title story, "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden," which is one of those out-of-this-world achievements. In summary, it sounds almost John Cheever-esque: Our narrator — a melancholy, unnamed ad man in his 60s — wonders what his life has been all about, as friends around him begin to die off.

But that summary gives the wrong impression: It's too pat and it doesn't convey the peculiar tone of the narrator's life review. He's bemused, compassionate and terrified. After all, he's old enough to know the unexpected is always crouched and ready to pounce, and Johnson's writing style affirms this truth. Here's a sampling from the opening paragraph, which begins by describing a mundane dinner party and the conversation that follows:

After dinner, nobody went home right away. I think we'd enjoyed the meal so much we hoped Elaine would serve us the whole thing all over again. ... We sat around in the living room describing the loudest sounds we'd ever heard. One said it was his wife's voice when she told him she didn't love him anymore and wanted a divorce.

That conversation veers way off road, as does the plot. Johnson's images, as you'd expect from a writer who published three collections of poetry, are also distinctive and charged. For instance, in "Triumph Over the Grave," an old writer's fingers are described as, looking "like eight dancer's legs clothed in droopy stockings of flesh, marching and kicking around the tabletop in front of him."

Throughout his career, Johnson was also praised for his range: He could do elegy and comedy, magical realism and even Westerns, like his brilliant novella Train Dreams. In the final story here — the other out-of-this-world achievement, called, "Doppelgänger, Poltergeist," — Johnson swirls Elvis conspiracy theories into a witty academic farce tale. The result is something I never saw coming: a powerful and poignant tribute to the human impulse to deny death.

The Largesse of The Sea Maiden contains the kind of work every writer would like to go out on: fresh, profound and singular. It affirms literature's promise to believers, the gift of eternal voice.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Denis Johnson was one of those rare writers who garnered critical praise, popular attention and the respect of his fellow writers. He won the National Book Award for his 2007 novel "Tree Of Smoke" and was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Johnson died in May of last year. A posthumous collection of his short stories is just out. It's called "The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Denis Johnson's posthumous short story collection, "The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden," is full of last calls to his readers, signaling hurry up, please, it's time. Take these eerie sentences spoken by the narrator of a story called "Triumph Over The Grave." (Reading) It's plain to you that at the time I write this I'm not dead, but may be by the time you read it.

Of course those sentences leap off the page because Johnson himself is now dead, carried off by liver cancer last year at the age of 67. Johnson always named Walt Whitman as one of his core influences, and you can hear Whitman throughout this whole collection. Like those direct addresses to his future readers that Whitman scatters throughout "Leaves Of Grass," Johnson in these stories anticipates talking across the abyss that separates the quick from the dead.

In his gritty way, Johnson was a believer in transcendence. His 1992 collection of linked short stories called "Jesus' Son," which many critics and readers have anointed as his masterpiece, is about junkies and losers crashing their way along American highways searching for redemption and finding it, sort of. The five stories in this new collection are standalones, but they all share an explicit awareness that death is in the neighborhood. Most of these stories are terrific and, too, the first and the last are out of this world.

I say this not out of deference to the recently deceased, but in awe. When Johnson wrote at reckless full force, his sentences and story lines blasted barriers, discovering those odd places where, as one of his narrators here says, the mystery winks at you. That line comes from the title's story, "The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden," which is one of those out of this world achievements. In summary, it sounds almost Cheeveresque. Our narrator, a melancholy unnamed ad man in his '60s, wonders what his life has been all about as friends around him begin to die off. But that summary gives the wrong impression. It's too pat, and it doesn't convey the peculiar tone of the narrator's life review. He's bemused, compassionate and terrified. After all, he's old enough to know the unexpected is always crouched and ready to pounce, and Johnson's writing style affirms this truth.

Here's a sampling from the opening paragraph, which begins by describing a mundane dinner party and then - well, listen. (Reading) After dinner, nobody went home right away. I think we'd enjoyed the meal so much we hoped Elaine would serve us the whole thing all over again. We sat around in the living room describing the loudest sounds we'd ever heard. One said it was his wife's voice when she told him she didn't love him anymore and wanted a divorce.

That conversation veers way off road, as does the plot. Johnson's images, as you'd expect from a writer who published three collections of poetry, are also distinctive and charged. For instance, in "Triumph Over The Grave," an old writer's fingers are described as looking like eight dancer's legs clothed in droopy stockings of flesh, marching and kicking around the table top in front of him.

Throughout his career, Johnson was also praised for his range. He could do elegy and comedy, magical realism and even Westerns, like his brilliant novella "Train Dreams." In the final story here, the other out of this world achievement, called "Doppelganger Poltergeist," Johnson swirls Elvis conspiracy theories into a witty academic force tale. The result is something I never saw coming, a powerful and poignant tribute to the human impulse to deny death. "The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden" contains the kind of work every writer would like to go out on - fresh, profound and singular. It affirms literature's promise to believers the gift of eternal voice.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Denis Johnson's short story collection "The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COCO")

ANTHONY GONZALEZ: (As Miguel) Sometimes I think I'm cursed 'cause of something that happened before I was even born.

GROSS: The Disney Pixar film "Coco" just won the Golden Globe for best animated film. It takes place in a small Mexican town on the Day of the Dead, the holiday to honor deceased loved ones. We'll talk with the co-writers and co-directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.