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

Author Denis Johnson, pictured here in 2013, died in May of 2017. The new posthumously published collection, <em>The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, </em>features five of Johnson's short stories.
Cindy Lee Johnson
Courtesy of Random House
Author Denis Johnson, pictured here in 2013, died in May of 2017. The new posthumously published collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, features five of Johnson's short stories.

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":

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:

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.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.