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Denis Johnson Leaves Us With His Best In 'Largesse Of The Sea Maiden'

Nobody ever wrote like Denis Johnson. Nobody ever came close. The author of books like Jesus' Son and Tree of Smoke was a hardcore minimalist who could say in one sentence what other writers wouldn't be able to say in a whole chapter. His stories and novels embraced the dark, but reluctantly; he refused to shy away from the brutal, the violent and the desperate. He was the last of his breed, and it was a breed of one.

Johnson died of liver cancer last May, but not before finishing The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, his first short story collection in 25 years. According to his publisher, it's the last book we'll ever see from Johnson, and the hell of it is, it's one of the best he ever wrote.

The collection opens with the title story, about a man is his early 60s reckoning with the loss of a friend and the winding down of his career in advertising. He finds himself thinking of mortality: his own, and his loved ones', particularly his life partner: "Elaine: she's petite, lithe, quite smart; short gray hair, no make-up. A good companion. At any moment — the very next second — she could be dead."

When he goes to New York to receive a prize for a television commercial he worked on years ago, he's reminded of the inevitability of decline, and how the passage of time can be as cruel as it is ameliorative: "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." It's a stunning story, dark, certainly, but not oppressive.

Even darker is "The Starlight on Idaho," told as a series of letters from Cass, a patient in a rehab center in California. Cass comes from a rough-and-tumble family with a history of run-ins with the law ("I mean this is not a family to get their coat of arms tattooed on your chest. ... My oldest brother is somebody who the state of Texas won't let him possess scissors."). As the story progresses, Cass, suffering side effects from the medication he's been prescribed to treat his alcoholism, grows more and more desperate, at one point interrupting a letter to address God: "Excuse me, I have to burn this page and write a letter to God while it's on fire. Question is, God, where are you? What ... on earth do you think you're doing, man? We are in HELL down here, HELL down here, HELL. You know? Where's Superman?"

The story is as bleak as anything Johnson has written, but his portrayal of Cass feels almost unbearably true. Johnson treats Cass with compassion, but never patronizes him; the voice he gives his antihero is both beautiful and realistic. The story ends with at least a glimmer of hope for redemption: "I'm writing letters to each one of you lucky winners who has a hook in my heart. Every time your heart beats I can feel a little jerk, just a little something. Whether you like it or not, that's love."

It's easy to speculate that Johnson saw the world as something like a jail, and all of us, lucky and troubled, contrite and unrepentant, as wayward angels trapped inside.

The remaining stories in the collection explore similar themes. "Triumph over the Grave" follows a writing professor in Austin, Texas, who helps attend to an ailing colleague and a dying friend. The last two sentences are shocking; they feel like a message to the reader. It's difficult to read, especially so close after Johnson's own death.

And in the story "Strangler Bob," about a young man nicknamed Dink (he's not thrilled, understandably, with the sobriquet) serving 41 days for stealing a car, Johnson seems to provide a key to his work — not just the stories in this book, but in everything he's written. "While I was kept there I wondered if this place was some kind of intersection for souls," Dink muses, "and 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."

It's easy to speculate that Johnson saw the world as something like a jail, and all of us, lucky and troubled, contrite and unrepentant, as wayward angels trapped inside. We'll never know if that's what he meant, of course; we're just left with this miraculous book, these perfect stories, the last words from one of the world's greatest writers. As one of his characters says, "The Past just left. Its remnants, I claim, are mostly fiction."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub
Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.