BookBrowse Reviews The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

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
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2018, 224 pages
    Jan 2019, 224 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Jamie Samson
Buy This Book

About this Book



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 The BookBrowse Review in January 2018, and has been updated for the January 2019 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $12 for 3 months or $39 for a year.
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Literary Inmates

Join BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten.

Find out more

Today's Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: All That She Carried
    All That She Carried
    by Tiya Miles
    For Rose of Charleston, South Carolina, it was an ordinary day until it wasn't. When it turned out ...
  • Book Jacket
    by Charlotte McConaghy
    Migrations, Australian author Charlotte McConaghy's literary fiction debut, earned a notably high ...
  • Book Jacket: The Forest of Vanishing Stars
    The Forest of Vanishing Stars
    by Kristin Harmel
    Kristin Harmel's historical novel The Forest of Vanishing Stars was very well-received by our First ...
  • Book Jacket: African Europeans
    African Europeans
    by Olivette Otele
    The nexus of Africans and Europeans is not a recent historical development. Rather, the peoples of ...

Book Club Discussion
Book Jacket
All the Little Hopes
by Leah Weiss
A Southern story of friendship forged by books and bees, in the murky shadows of World War II.

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    The Sunset Route
    by Carrot Quinn

    A beautiful memoir about forgiveness, self-discovery, and the redemptive power of nature.

Win This Book!
Win The Debt Trap

The Debt Trap
by Josh Mitchell

"A meticulous, eye-opening history of the US student debt crisis."
—Publishers Weekly



Solve this clue:

A T I A Teapot

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.