BookBrowse Reviews The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson

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The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

Stories

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
    Paperback:
    Jan 2019, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jamie Samson
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This collection of mesmerizing short stories will delight lovers of the now deceased Denis Johnson while serving as a powerful introduction to a master of the form.

By the time of his death in 2017, Denis Johnson had long been acknowledged as a contemporary master of the short story, worthy of comparison to latter-day luminaries such as Alice Munro, George Saunders, and Lydia Davis. From his 1992 breakthrough collection, Jesus' Son, to his late-career novels, Tree of Smoke and Train Dreams, he'd succeeded in enchanting — and disturbing — a whole generation of book-lovers with his bleak, beautiful tales of life at the ragged edges of America. Reading The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, it is hard not to suspect that Johnson's stories will continue to haunt many more generations to come.

For those unfamiliar with this author, the world of these stories will feel like a glamorously macabre new territory. Johnson's America is a brutal, seductive continent, governed by corruption, plagued by addiction, obsessed with sin. His protagonists, who tend to be violent, unhappy and male, are always kicking through the squalor of their lives, searching for a touch of grace. This may come in the form of celebrity grave-robbing, as in the story "Doppleganger, Poltergeist," which opens with a down-at-heel poet attempting to dig up the body of Elvis Presley. Or it may come from writing a letter to Satan, which is exactly what the protagonist of "The Starlight on Idaho" does from the dismal confines of a rehab center.

Johnson tends to eschew the niceties of plot in favor of a looser approach, and many of the stories in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden play out more like sequences of memories, meditations, anecdotes and riffs than conventional tales. In the ominously titled "Strangler Bob," for instance, a story set within the harsh, filthy microcosm of a county jail, the very aimlessness of the narrative — it is little more than a series of conversations between inmates — reflects the tedious circularity of prison life. The monstrous title character, for instance, likes to make predictions about his fellow prisoners' futures, some of which are more accurate than they first appear. But this is a world in which the past, the present, and the future are not so clearly delineated — a world in which time is the ultimate tyrannical warden, irrational and capricious: "It was that moment in the day when time itself grew outrageously lopsided, getting farther and farther from lunch but somehow no closer to supper, and the bars became harder than iron..."

A similar approach is taken in the magnificent title story. "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden" follows the rambling thoughts and memories of a retired advertising executive (an unusually respectable profession for a Johnson protagonist). He recalls ex-wives, former friends, ancient dinner parties, and award ceremonies. As in Johnson's novella Train Dreams, a whole life of achievement, compromise and disappointment is condensed into a short space. In its elegance and in the long, loose reach of its gaze, this is a story that could only have been written by a true master at the summit of his powers. The result, like the rest of the stories collected in this book, is a beautifully skewed meditation of aging and loss, rendered in prose that is always pared-down, cool, and note-perfect.

Reviewed by Jamie Samson

This review was originally published in January 2018, and has been updated for the January 2019 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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