Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book Review: "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories" by Denis Johnson

"It doesn't matter. The world keeps turning. It's plain to you that at the time I write this, I'm not dead. But maybe by the time you read it."

Denis Johnson's last short story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, was published about eight months after he died from lung cancer at the age of 67. That fact certainly adds a feeling of melancholy to the collection, even when he isn't writing lines like the ones above. It's also a fairly dark book about facing mortality and one's failures.

I first came upon Johnson's writing in the mid-1990s when I read his collection Jesus' Son (way back in the days before I wrote book reviews or counted how many books I read), and it has honestly stuck with me all these years later. I forget at times what a phantasmagorical ride he often took you on, and that his stories had such surprising depth, even when they were a little bizarre, but his deft hand with imagery and word choice often had me re-reading paragraphs more than once, simply to marvel at what he had written.

It was certainly inevitable that I'd come to The Largesse of the Sea Maiden with higher expectations than I probably should have had, given these stories were the last thing he had written (at least as well as we're aware). Unfortunately, I found the collection somewhat uneven—a few stories didn't quite work for me, but they were bookended by one spectacular story and one really good one.

I liked the story "Strangler Bob," a quirky story about a man in prison. While it, too, has some dark elements, there is more humor in this story than most of the others. But my two favorites in the collection were "Doppelgänger, Poltergeist," in which a writing instructor looked back on his relationship with his most gifted student, who became a famed poet, but who also had a strange obsession with Elvis Presley, and the exceptional, unforgettable title story, in which an aging ad man reflects on his life, his successes and his failures through the years, and some of the more interesting people and situations he encountered.

In that story, Johnson shares some truly poignant lines which make it more evident he knew this was his final book. "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."

The literary world has lost a true treasure in Johnson, and if offbeat, beautifully written fiction appeals to you, I'd encourage you to pick up Jesus' Son and Train Dreams, his more recent novella. Those of you who are short story fans might enjoy this collection as well, if only for a few of the stories, but some may find it difficult to follow.

RIP, Mr. Johnson, and thanks for sharing your immense talent with the world.

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