The Finality of ‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’

The near beauty of Denis Johnson's recent, and final, work.

sea maiden

It’s a bit of a fault of mine that I shy away from short story collections, even those by authors I adore. There just is something about not having chapters to create natural pauses and not living with the characters over the course of the two hundred pages. I need something that keeps me coming back. With short story collections, I tend to put the book down for too long after finishing one of the tales. My preference would then lean towards reading short stories individually, outside of a collection. But when I heard that Denis Johnson was getting a posthumous release of short stories less than a year after his death from cancer, I was excited: Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a renowned volume of stories, were so connected that they could almost be considered a novel. His novella Train Dreams is one of the best works in recent American prose.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, a set of five stories, has such a precise tone of loss, beauty, and regret that it almost sticks a book. Its tenor is by far the best thing that it has going for it, and in many cases with these stories, that is more than enough.

The best of the bunch is “Triumph Over the Grave”; a writer cares for and reflects on his dying friends. Like several of the stories here, it begins wayward (almost pointless) only to find the last several pages of the story less gut wrenching and instead pure melancholy. It’s one of Johnson’s best weapons as a writer: his lyrical ability enables him to create a perfect sense of emotional hurt and longing without being too hyperbolic or saccharine.

The weakest of the bunch is a looser story called “The Starlight on Idaho” which would have felt more at home in the aforementioned Jesus’ Son (its narrator reveals more and more of his dire situation in a rehab facility through letters to various real or imaged figures of his life). The epistolary nature as a framing device works to sell the feeling of entrapment—both internally and externally—and is saved by Johnson’s beauty of writing; however, the piece falls flat due to those same confines. The ranting nature of a man on the verge of madness and anger can only build up so much. Overall, the story lacks as much emotional punch as the remainders.

The other three narratives—all are told from the first person point of view, usually by a writer of some kind, often meandering to some degree—are fascinating, beautiful in their own way. Each begins with vague recollections only to connect to the present at some point around the halfway point. It mostly works, and at times, is even poignant. I’ve never read a fictional account of an Elvis Presley obsession as weird, wonderful, and bizarre as I have in “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” but leave it to Denis Johnson. “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” too, is wrapped in that haunting, nostalgic way that only Johnson can do. I don’t know how he does it, and it’s a shame he won’t again.

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