Ian Preece reviews the legendary Denis Johnson’s short story collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, posthumously published by Penguin Random House earlier this year.
I finished Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden on a long train journey down to London from the north. Sitting backwards on an aisle seat, with not much aisle to speak of, I may as well have been seated at the table opposite. Two young women from well-to-do southern-counties backgrounds talked for over three hours about facial scrubs, tea tree oil, meals out, who’d split up with who, food, meals out, food-shopping, supermarkets and who was going out with who from uni. TV too. Fairly regularly they paused to spool through their phones, but no sustained period of silence broke out. One of them kept reaching into the middle of the table to take one crisp at a time from a bottomless bag of crisps concealed inside a larger Marks and Spencer carrier bag. After each crisp had been consumed she brushed off the salty detritus from her clothing with considerable vigour. Maybe they spotted the miserable-looking middle-aged man trying to read a slim volume of short stories – gloomy angst-ridden stuff about time passing and mortality, by a white American male writer no doubt.
Denis Johnson is – was – the absolute master of infusing everyday scenes with atmospheric detail and tension, humour and fear, distress, love, kindness and regret – just about any emotion you care to think of. After a horrific drugged rape scene in Johnson’s 1977 debut novel Angels one of the main characters takes a cab through Chicago, her scumbag ‘seducer/destroyer’ next to her, too close, the hollowed-out, beyond-hungover, bottom-dropping-out-of-desolation nausea rising from page while ‘out in the world the streets whirled around them like the blades of a fan’. In another scene strangers make eye contact, ‘alternately shy and bold glances’, across a lane in a bowling alley as a David Allen Coe song plays on a jukebox; later, death-row prisoners stare out of a cell window at a fluorescent streetlamp that ‘arched out over the service station, and another lay flat on the pool of water and lubricant beneath it’. Johnson’s world is made up of puddles in a children’s playground left after a downpour, empty bus stops where buses no longer pull up, people ‘filling up notebooks with jazz’, going off their head in a rehab facility, the former Starlight Motel, writing to God, wondering what the fuck he’s playing at (‘The Starlight on Idaho’ from The Largesse . . .). Nods to jazz, Elvis Presley, the art of writing (yet the ludicrousness of the ‘creative industries’), the weather, intoxication and background music all crop up fairly regularly. In the opening story of this new collection an ad-man, in New York for an awards ceremony, takes advantage of a hot-dog vendor closing early and selling his wares off cheaply because of the snow. On a high at being back in the city of dreams he buys two ‘rat-dogs and a doubtful cup of coffee’. Later, as an award-winner for a TV ad for a banking chain ( which involves an animated bear chasing a rabbit; ‘it referred, really, to nothing at all, and yet it was actually very moving’), our ad-man is seated at the front table with all the industry high-rollers when, ‘intestines in flames’, he has to stand up quickly and ‘let the bout of indigestion carry [him] from the room’. He makes it downstairs to the gentlemen’s facilities just in time. Ensconced, his ‘bowels churned and smouldered’, as someone enters the adjacent stall . . .
Within a story, between chapters, in the course of a novel, Johnson can suddenly move through the gears and time speeds up. As Michael Carlson pointed out in his obituary in the Guardian, Johnson often ‘used the tropes of genre fiction to give his novels structure’. Happily I’ve still got Already Dead and Nobody Move to read, but those two are kind of American noir; The Laughing Monsters and Tree of Smoke are loosely espionage and war thrillers, fast paced and full of smoke and mirrors, but with writing so good, so luminous, they’re never less than total page-turners – even when you’re not sure what’s going on. Johnson is probably most famous for his short fiction, though – the beautiful, vast, expansive novella (if a novella can be vast and expansive) Train Dreams; and short story collections like Jesus’ Son. So, it’s kind of fitting that the last book from a former Iowa workshop student of Raymond Carver – and a teacher himself to the likes of David Means – is a collection of short stories.
As well as award ceremonies and writing, nearly crashing the car because ‘this morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life’, suicide, the death penalty (also right there at the very start, in Angels), beyond-awkward dinner parties and trudging through New York in the snow and happening upon sad bars are just some of the gloomy things that crop up (or beautiful things that glow) in the title story ‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’.
I’m too old to really rave about this now, but Johnson is terrific on drug-induced altered states of consciousness (read ‘Hippies’ from his non-fiction collection Seek), and that bleeds into ‘Strangler Bob’ in this collection, a fine short jail story that manages to be sinister, tense, hilarious, deranged and sad, all on the same page, often in the same paragraph. Prison is another reoccurring subject for Johnson – he’s up there with Chester Himes and Don Carpenter on the view from behind bars; like with rehab, the raw material was presumably all garnered from hard living in his twenties. ‘Triumph Over the Grave’ is a long, sad story about writing, mortality and the ‘scrubby semi-desert’ of south-west Texas. In a great riff on writing, the narrator proffers that it’s ‘not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie’ – before adding ‘although it has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years’. Later in the story a character lies close to the end in a clammy hospital ward ‘beaten at last not by life but by the refusal of their dramas to end in anything but this meaningless procedural quicksand’. The NHS is, of course, a glorious thing, but I guess that’s the end coming to most of us. Death: ‘It doesn’t matter,’ writes Johnson at the very end of ‘Triumph . . .’ ‘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.’
Last summer I was in America when Sam Shepard died. I stumbled across an excellent new and second-hand bookshop in the Mission district of San Francisco: Dog Eared Books. On the counter they had a pile of Shepard’s plays and Motel Chronicles. In amongst those were a couple of Denis Johnson titles. ‘What a great bookshop,’ I thought, buying one of their t-shirts with the shop’s dog motif on the front. It was only when I got back home that the penny finally dropped: that Dog Eared front desk was some kind of ‘recently passed’ display cabinet. (And the t-shirt, I discovered, had ‘READ A BOOK’ printed in bold caps on the back – a bit like ‘FUCK YOU’.) Johnson died last May at only 67. Part of the absolute tragedy of this is that one of the funniest writers of our times (up there in a kind of holy trinity with Geoff Dyer and Nicholson Baker) is gone.
It’s hard to say exactly whether Johnson knew he was succumbing to liver cancer when writing the stories in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (some of them apparently took years). But, given the themes, and knowing he’s passed on can make it a sober read – although, in truth, it thrums with life lived beautifully. This was a man who travelled across war zones in East and West Africa and attempted to live by his wits in the Alaskan wilderness for the New Yorker, played cards with the locals in the backwoods bars of Montana, drank and ingested too much when he was young, but attended every single one of his students’ graduate readings of poetry and fiction when he was teaching creative writing at Cornell University. David Means recalled his old lecturer (at Columbia) putting his arm around his shoulder one lonely afternoon early in the semester and pulling out one of Means’s poems ‘– a love poem to my wife called “I Want to be Your Shoulder Blades”. “You’ve got something,” said Johnson. ‘Just keep trusting yourself. Keep listening to what you’re thinking, man.”’ Means also wrote in the New Yorker about Johnson’s relative low profile, or avoidance of the media circus, interviews and the circuit of author tours and readings, putting it more down to ‘humility – perhaps even shyness – than some calculated desire to stay away from the world’. Which is why, I guess, the best writers start out being just writers. If you don’t know ’em, buy Seek and Train Dreams, and certainly buy The Largesse of the Sea Maiden – and block out all that talk of restaurants and food and social media and crisps and supermarkets and TV and food, and fuckin’ food . . .