Johnson’s characters are resigned to pain; his stories shot through with humor, hope

The American author Denis Johnson died last year at age 67. “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” published posthumously this month, is Johnson’s first collection of stories since “Jesus’ Son,” the 1992 book that essentially made his name. (In a recent New York Times survey of critics, JESUS’ SON was cited as one of the most influential works of fiction in the past half-century.)

sea maiden

In the 26 years between those collections, Johnson produced six novels, including the long, feverish “Tree of Smoke,’ the Vietnam epic that won the National Book Award.

Johnson wrote in a conversational, disarmingly casual style perfectly suited to his short fiction. As with “Jesus’ Son,” his stories are narrated, primarily, by men stunned by the outcome of their lives. Resigned to failing health and spiraling careers, they drift in and out of rehab, jails and hospitals (even universities – writers and professors appear with regularity in Johnson’s fiction).

In the opening title story, an advertising executive, nearing retirement, reluctantly travels to New York City to pick up a career achievement award. Arriving in the city just as it’s blanketed by snow, he experiences a series of ominous reunions and strange encounters. More important, the narrator is haunted by a sense of his own mortality, which sets the tone for the rest of the collection.

“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.”

Not all of the stories entirely work. “Poltergeist, Doppelganger” is about a writing instructor drawn into the wobbly orbit of a former student who’s received accolades as a poet. As the years tick away, however, the narrator looks on in dismay as his friend loses his mind to a devouring obsession with conspiracy theories regarding Elvis Presley’s death.

It’s an odd, uncertain story. When the plot suddenly detours to lower Manhattan on the morning of 9/11, I almost wondered if Johnson had inserted a section from another, unused, story. (Or perhaps it will always be “too soon” for fictional depictions of the towers falling.)

But Johnson was not a writer with a crushingly bleak view of humanity. In spite of an often-despairing tone, his stories are shot through with hope and redemption – and a ghoulish humor I find hard to resist:

“Shot twice by the same guy, first he just grazed me when I was stealing his money and coke, second he hunted me and got me in the shoulder with a twenty-two derringer. Those twenty-two long-rifles HURT. I pity the folks who get the experience of the bigger calibers.”

Passages such as this should immediately resonate with the multitude of fans of “Jesus’ Son,” particularly in the cracked optimism of its drug addled narrator. The misfits that inhabit these stories have fallen so precipitously that each new day on Earth offers a kind of grace.

“Even though I’m just thirty-two years old I’m the only person I’ve ever met who’s actually been in a coma. I have been asked over and over by medical people who probably know what they’re talking about ‘Why aren’t you dead?’ 

Denis Johnson reportedly died of cancer, and it’s difficult to read these final stories without contemplating the author’s awareness of his imminent demise.

As one of his story’s narrators puts it, “It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”

Sam Shapiro is a library manager and programmer for Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden”

By Denis Johnson

Random House, 224 pages