Excerpt from The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Largesse of the Sea Maiden


by Denis Johnson

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson X
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2018, 224 pages

    Jan 2019, 224 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Jamie Samson
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

In the office, I asked Shylene to call a locksmith and then get me an appointment with my back-man.

In the upper right quadrant of my back I have a nerve that once in a while gets pinched. The T4 nerve. These nerves aren't frail little ink lines; they're cords as thick as your pinky finger. This one gets caught between tense muscles, and for days, even for weeks, there's not much to be done but take aspirins and get massages and visit the chiropractor. Down my right arm I feel a tingling, a numbness, sometimes a dull, sort of muffled torment, or else a shapeless, confusing pain.

It's a signal: it happens when I'm anxious about something.

To my surprise, Shylene knew all about this something. Apparently she finds time to be Googling her bosses, and she'd learned of an award I was about to receive in, of all places, New York—for an animated television commercial. The award goes to my old New York team, but I was the only one of us attending the ceremony, possibly the only one interested, so many years down the line. This little gesture of acknowledgment put the finishing touches on a depressing picture. The people on my team had gone on to other teams, fancier agencies, higher accomplishments. All I'd done in better than two decades was to tread forward until I reached the limit of certain assumptions, and step off. Meanwhile, Shylene was oohing, gushing, like a proud nurse who expects you to marvel at all the unholy procedures the hospital has in store for you. I said to her, "Thanks, thanks."

When I entered the reception area, and throughout this transaction, Shylene wore a flashy sequined carnival masque. I didn't ask why.

Our office environment is part of the new wave. The whole agency works under one gigantic big top like a circus—not crowded, quite congenial, all of it surrounding a spacious break-time area with pinball machines and a basketball hoop, and every Friday during the summer months we have a Happy Hour with free beer from a keg.

In New York I made commercials. In San Diego I write and design glossy brochures, mostly for a group of western resorts where golf is played and horses take you along bridle paths. Don't get me wrong—California's full of beautiful spots; it's a pleasure to bring them to the attention of people who might enjoy them. Just, please, not with a badly pinched nerve.

When I can't stand it I take the day off and visit the big art museum in Balboa Park. Today, after the locksmith got me back in my car, I drove to the museum and sat in on part of a lecture in one of its side-rooms, a woman Outsider artist raving, "Art is man and man is art!" I listened for five minutes, and what little of it she managed to make comprehensible didn't even merit being called shallow. Just the same, her paintings were slyly designed, intricately patterned, and coherent. I wandered from wall to wall, taking some of it in, not much. But looking at art for an hour or so always changes the way I see things afterward—this day, for instance, a group of mentally handicapped adults on a tour of the place with their twisted, hovering hands and cocked heads, moving among the works like cheap cinema zombies, but good zombies, zombies with minds and souls and things to keep them interested. And outside, where they normally have a lot of large metal sculptures, the grounds were being dug up and reconstructed—a dragline shovel nosing the rubble monstrously, and a woman and child watching, motionless, the little boy standing on a bench with his smile and sideways eyes and his mother beside him, holding his hand, both so still, like a photograph of American ruin.

Next I had a session with a chiropractor dressed up as an elf.

It seemed the entire staff at the medical complex near my house were costumed for Halloween, and while I waited out front in the car for my appointment, the earliest one I could get that day, I saw a Swiss milkmaid coming back from lunch, then a witch with a green face, then a sunburst-orange superhero. Then I had the session with the chiropractor in his tights and drooping cap.

Excerpted from The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson. Copyright © 2018 by Denis Johnson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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