The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 19 Mar 2018

Member Reviews

Johnson's posthumously published short story collection is my gateway to his writing. Clearly written after Johnson knew his fate, the five stories are each ruminations on death, each offering narratives that at first appear unwieldy and random, but that wrap up neatly, offering conclusions that are at once dark but satisfying. Tonally, I found the writing at times too brooding, resigned, almost nihilistic. The freight train to the afterlife clearly had captured the author's attention, and he offers us a peak into his contemplative soul at the end, but I wonder if the vulnerability we can see in the words makes the writing appear greater than it actually is. None of the stories was particularly dramatic or memorable. I wonder if its like Leonard Cohen's last album, whose finality gave it a power beyond the quality of the actual writing. Additionally, thematically, the stories feel out of place, out of sync with the zeitgeist. The old white man author, whose work was once so profound and connected with what the world was, feels much more foreign and offers less insight into the truths fiction is supposed to unearth. In the end, I enjoyed the writing and may eventually explore some of Johnson's other work, but maybe the rave reviews are out of place. The shadow of death after all accentuates the immediate and time may not offer such a glowing response in years to come.
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"This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life – the distance I’ve traveled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms – that I almost crashed the car."

I don’t think I “got” this book, nor do I think I was the target audience, per se. According to Goodreads, this short story collection dealt with themes of “middle-aged life and the elusive and unexpected ways the mysteries of the universe assert themselves.” While I can’t relate, I can appreciate these stories for what they are. The writing itself was great, but I wasn’t able to connect with any of the characters nor with any of the stories. My favorite, if I had to pick, was the first one: “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.”

"He said the most silent thing he’d ever heard was the land mine taking off his right leg outside Kabul, Afghanistan."

However, none of the other stories held my interest, which was a shame.

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group – Random House for a copy of this eBook in exchange for an honest review.
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What is the loudest thing you’ve ever heard? What about the quietest? This book starts with a party scene where people are wracking their brains for memories. I want to be at this party! For a second, I forget about the book as I race down memory lane, wondering what I would come up with if someone asked me these questions. Seriously, these are delicious things to ponder! Already this writer has me in the palm of his hand.

Funny, I was dreading this book. First off, what’s with the snooty academic title? I confess I didn’t even know what “largesse” meant—all I could hear was “large” (which is NOT its synonym, it turns out). And sea maidens--oh no! Are these stories going to be about myths or fairy tales, two of my most unfavorite things?
 
And then there’s the blah cover. I like purple, I really do, but this cover is plain Jane, and the title doesn’t stand out enough. It’s in all caps, which I hate. And there are lines running through the title—in my editor eyes, lines through text mean throw the words the hell out. Even though I have the Kindle version and don’t have to look at the book, I know it has an ugly cover and lol, this made me not want to read it! “You can’t fool me, cover! I know what you really look like!” I figured anyone who picked out that blah cover must be peddling a blah book. Plus after reading a few reviews, I worried that this was going to an academic read, that it was Fine Literature full of symbolism and imagery, and I’d feel all depressed because it bored me or went right over my head.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. You start reading and wham! You’re pulled right into that party scene with the two killer questions. But that scene, as rich as it is, is isolated, disconnected from the story. In fact, all five stories have the meander disease. But what I got instead of clean, clear plots were these brilliant little vignettes embedded everywhere, and I just savored them. There are some long-ass sentences, but who cares. I couldn’t take my eyes off his prose. 

Each story is narrated by a man who is looking back at his life. There’s addiction, obsession, guilt, estrangement, worry, death. The author has a brilliant sense of the absurd, which is his ticket to my heart.

I ran into sentences like this, which made me swoon:

“How often will you witness a woman kissing an amputation?”

The author died of liver cancer in 2017, and this was his last work. I’m thinking he was beating the clock and maybe he just didn’t have time to go for cohesion. 

Death is a theme throughout the stories, though the collection isn’t maudlin. It’s clear that sometimes the author is looking at his own life, and there are pieces of him in his characters:

“It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”

I decided early on that it was okay if plot wasn’t Johnson’s thing. I was mesmerized by his description of complex, down-and-outer characters, by his amazing insight into the human condition. And he’s one of those authors who observes the little things that we want to pretend we didn’t see or feel. Or maybe it’s not that we’re pretending events didn’t happen, maybe it’s just that these little things in our consciousness get trumped by the bigger things. Johnson brings the little things back to life.

As always, I liked some stories better than others. My favorite was “The Starlight on Idaho,” about a guy in rehab writing letters to everyone he knows. I’m always a sucker for letters, anyway, and here I was enraptured.

There was a little work required as I was reading. Whenever I opened the book, I had to reread quite a few pages and concentrate pretty hard. I think this is because the stories don’t have an obvious plot, and without an obvious plot it’s easy to lose your bearings. A minor complaint, however. The language is so rich, I didn’t mind the reread. I did run into the dreaded “try and” crime now and then, and I’d wince, but it was a one-off event.
 
You won’t find a lot of closure, but then again stories short on plot don’t necessarily warrant closure. The exception is the last story, about a guy obsessed with Elvis. That one had a tight ending even though the inside did some meandering. I wasn’t crazy about the story at first, but it grew on me.

And weird—there are no chicks, anywhere. Don’t ask me why I noticed this! Occasionally a wife or a divorce is mentioned, but that’s the only inkling that another gender exists in the universe. That strikes me as odd, until I remember that we’re supposed to write what we know. Johnson knows men. He knows how to talk about what goes on in a man’s head. Thankfully, although the book is masculine, there is no macho.

I got all busy checking out the author on the Internet, which I usually do when I love a book. I found out that he created this exquisite list:

Three Rules to Write By
-Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.
-Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.
-Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.

I’m not sure I “got” all the meaning in these stories—was there more to the meandering than I could understand? Dunno. But in any case, I was seduced by the polished prose and the intriguing, offbeat characters.

So where has this writer been all my life? I must read his earlier works. What a shame that the fiction world lost this master storyteller.

Thanks to NetGalley for the advance copy.
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Another literary icon has passed, leaving us with this his offering. Five stories, each longer than your usual shorts. The first, the title story, concern a man who works in advertising, he is nearing retirement, and he tells us in short vignettes about his dead or disappeared acquaintances. 

All these stories grapple with death in all its different permutations. They oftentimes feature lives that have lost their way, their control of their future. My favorite was triumph over the grave. Where a once successful author finds success doesn't guarantee happiness. It is the most poignsnt story and the one that closest relates to the author. I had thought I would love the last story with a character that has an obsession with Elvis, as I had an older cousin who was Elvis crazy. Unfortunately it turned out to be the one I liked the least. 

This is a strong collection, in my opinion, the stories tell it like it is, sometimes brutally. Glimpses of lives, in all their dark truths. He will be missed.

ARC from Netgalley.
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It has been a few months since I have read this final collection of short stories by Denis Johnson. Johnson’s death has left a void in creative and incredible writing. It is hard to believe this will be the last we hear from him. 
This collection is 5 of his last stories and it seems through the stories, he knows his death is coming. The wonderful aspect of Johnson’s writings is that he never paints a perfect or beautiful picture of the world. He promotes life as messy and not neat at all. This collection shows this aspect of life again. Life can be absurd and Johnson points that out wonderfully in this collection.
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It's weird, Denis Johnson is one of my favorite contemporary authors, but I can't say why, and I haven't read a lot of his work. I respond to the simplicity of his language, and sentences. It yields something more profound than the opposite. I wasn't, however, bowled over by this collection of stories like I was, say, by Tree of Smoke. The stories have a lot to do with life ending and with death, which are different subjects, which maybe I didn't realize until now. And it would make sense that they revolve around death because Denis is also now dead. Or maybe I'm reading into it. Events off the page produce meaning on the page, like the poet in the final story who does his best work while obsessed with an Elvis conspiracy theory. I didn't connect with every story. The characters felt distant to my experiences, especially those in the prison story and the letter writer in the recovery story, although as a human I can relate to how they seek to encapsulate their lives, to seek and process connections that may or may not exist. Relationships are fleeting. So are moments. Perhaps the whole point of life is striving for a bridge to permanence. And yet I have my suspicions that the bridge is a figment of our imaginations.
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Somehow this was my first time reading Denis Johnson, but it won't be the last. This is a collection of five sizable short stories, and although two of the five were not my favorite, the other three blew me away. Johnson is a poet, and infuses these short stories with a stunning lyricism. The stories at times could be slow plot-wise, but if you let yourself FEEL what he was saying, then you'd find yourself learning so much about life, death, meaning, age, burdens. The slightly heavy tone is offset by the beauty of assured writing--not a word is wasted or out of place. Others have mentioned how reading these stories felt like sitting down with a friend, and I agree. I'll be coming back to this collection in the future, and would recommend it to anyone who is truly willing to give it a try.
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As a longtime fan of Denis Johnson’s work, I eagerly awaited publication of his short stories. They are all remarkable, especially the title story and “Strangler Bob,” a harrowing look at life inside prison walls. Johnson’s voice is (sadly, was) unique, a looping quality to his sentences that invariably said more than mere words on a page could. Largesse of the Sea Maiden is highly recommended, and for those new to Denis Johnson, I also recommend Angels, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and - for avid readers - his neglected masterpiece, Already Dead.
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The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is a collection of five stories varying in themes, styles, and lengths. Some were naturally more successful than others, but all were of great quality. The ones that resonated with me most were the three last ones, curiously the atmospheric ones with more somber undertones. Without further ado, I give you my impressions.

I. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is an introspective and vividly described collection of ten vignettes, some short, some longer, around a central character who narrates the stories, and whom we get to know in stages. His name is not revealed until the final story. Starting with the first vignette titled Silences, each successive one is connected to the previous one and occasionally to the one after, by an underlying theme however tenuous.

I liked some stories more than others, the longer ones in particular, because they allowed fuller development of the theme explored. Accomplices was insightful and very accomplished despite being relatively short. I laughed out loud reading Farewell and Casanova, and I enjoyed the descriptive passages of New York City's sounds muffled by snow in Mermaid.

II. Starlight on Idaho
Written as epistles, Starlight on Idaho chronicles the requests to his support unit (i.e., counselor, doctor, family members), ramblings, and hallucinations of Mark Cassandra, an alcoholic in rehab at the Starlight Rehab Center—used to be the Starlight Motel on Idaho Avenue, a seedy neighborhood—in Ukiah, Northern California.
Mark, signing as Cass, addresses the "people who have hooks in his heart", telling them what his life has been like in the last four years. He also retells the deeds of his family members, and the testimony of some fellow addicts in his therapy group whom have left deep impressions on him.

At times difficult to read due to the topic and syntax, but always with a good dose of dark humor, Starlight on Idaho is an authentic attempt to decipher what goes on in the head of an addict who has been through Hell and wants to amend his ways.

III. Strangler Bob
Among the twenty or so inmates at a county jail, there is a man nicknamed 'Strangler Bob', in for a shocking crime for which he may easily get twenty-five years in prison. Knowing a thing or two about criminal behavior, he makes an unexpected prediction about three very young, small-time criminals while they are high on drugs—obtained through a contraband magazine.

My favorite story in the collection, and the most successful by far, both in tone and narrative, Strangler Bob showcases dark humor courtesy of an ensemble of crooked characters in a county jail. Unexpectedly philosophical, and with an ending that has a ring of karma, Strangler Bob is a refined study on human nature regardless of station in life, seen through the lens of social outcasts.

IV. Triumph over the Grave
In sort of a writing exercise, a nameless writer details in his journal his experience as a caretaker for two of his friends—one of them until his final breath—, and other family members. After surviving so many close encounters with death, he feels that, at least for now, he has gotten the upper hand.

Triumph Over the Grave is a longer story than its predecessors in this collection, more like a novella really, somber in topic yet compulsively readable. In it, nature (e.g., vultures, a windswept Texan prairie, and a stormy night in California) plays a major role, as it effectively contributes to the mood and atmosphere of the story. Triumph Over the Grave is a quiet meditation on death, and on temporarily winning over death.

V. Doppelgänger, Poltergeist
Writer and professor of poetry, Kevin Harrington, meets informally after class his most talented student. Marcus Ahearn, a young, adrift poet, has a secret obsession with Elvis Presley—and his fate after 1958—fueled by the death of his charismatic brother. Both Kevin and Marcus meet over the years to discuss whatever Marcus has been able to dig out about Elvis Presley’s twin, who was supposedly stillborn but whom Kevin argues not only survived but usurped Elvis’ life after the singer was killed by his manager.

With the length of a novella, an intriguing mystery/conspiracy theory, and characters one cares about, Doppelgänger, Poltergeist is my second favorite story in the book after Strangler Bob. Not only is the mystery intriguing but well developed, thus one feels fully immersed and wanting to know more about what could have happened to young Elvis. Did Elvis become mediocre as years went by, under subpar management, or was the reality more sinister? Whatever the answer I was hooked.

The ending left me in sort of “what?” state; I think it was so open that it baffled me, something that usually happens to me with open endings. In spite of that, I think the story was successful enough to end the book in such a high note that made me grant it half stars to its already four solid rating.

After reading the last three stories whose underlying themes are of death, and knowing that The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is the last book Denis Johnson wrote before passing away not that long ago, I wonder if he saw his end near and wrote about its meaning and transcendence. Whatever the case, in doing so Denis Johnson left us with a collection of short stories that is introspective, meaningful and lofty.

Disclaimer: I received from the publisher a free e-galley of this book via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.
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This is a book that filled me with regret. Regret that Denis Johnson left us too young and with no more of his wonderful prose to look forward to. All of the stories in this collection are unique, but my favorite, "Triumph Over the Grave" has a passage about writing that was so true and funny that I had to share it around. Perhaps with knowledge of his own impending demise, Johnson has woven death into a number of these tales. They are not maudlin, I hasten to add, except if you can't escape the shadow of his valedictory. So enjoy this book and DJ's mastery of the form and raise a glass to him next time one is at hand.
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Published by Random House on January 16, 2018

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is a collection of short stories by Denis Johnson, who died last year. Many of the stories continue Johnson’s exploration of the underbelly of life. Every story has a personal feel, as if the author lived the story. Perhaps he did. The collection stands as a testament to American literature’s loss of an outstanding writer.

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is a series of linked vignettes that describe moments in an advertising executive’s life. He drinks with other businessmen and visits a chiropractor for his bad back. He apologizes to his dying first or second wife for his marital crimes (he’s not sure which one called him but his crimes in each marriage were the same). He hears a story from a friend who interviewed a death row inmate and then interviewed the inmate’s widow in a peep show booth. He attends a small gathering of people to commemorate a dead friend and discovers that none of them really knew anything about him. He’s propositioned in a men’s room. He visits a diner during a Manhattan blizzard. And finally, he introduces himself and tells us about his work. I don’t know that the story tells the reader anything profound, but Johnson’s glimpses of an ordinary life remind us that no life is ordinary, that every experience has meaning.

While the first story isn’t as gritty as I expect from Denis Johnson, there’s plenty of grit in “The Starlight on Idaho.” A guy in rehab writes letters, mostly unsent, to family members and friends and rehab staff and God and Satan, talking about the way he wasted his last four years, putting on paper his hopes, regrets, and fears. Every word rings true. It’s funny and sad and a testament to the spirit of a guy who has good intentions and knows that isn’t enough.

“Strangler Bob” is an inmate in a story told by a scrawny inmate who earned the nickname “Dink.” Strangler Bob tells Dink that the story making the rounds about how Strangler Bob ate his wife for lunch is “a false exaggeration.” The story is amusing to the extent that it finds humor in the loss of freedom, but it’s also a sad exploration of the extent to which humans demean themselves when they fail to make a serious effort at living.

“Triumph Over the Grave” initially seems like a rambling story, but Johnson has it under his perfect control at all times. A writer talks about his friendship, as a young writer, with an older writer who wrote one great novel, now out of print and all but forgotten, like the writer himself. The story touches on other friendships, dementia and the cruelty of aging, and the courage to go on living and to be with the living when they die. This is a moving story that’s plainly written from the heart.

“Doppelgänger Poltergeist” is the story of a “spiritual felony” told from the perspective of an academic poet.. The story is about another academic poet, an itinerant visiting professor whose work is regarded as important by the small segment of society that follows contemporary poetry. The poet is of interest not for his poetry, but for his dedication to uncovering the truth about the death of Elvis, which he connects to a story about the ghost of Elvis who frequently visited a married couple (particularly the wife) while Elvis was in the Army. In the end, this is a story about obsession with conspiracy, which makes it timely — and it probably always will be timely, since unending numbers of people prefer conspiracy theories to objective reality. Yet the story suggests that there may be value in obsessions, if only because they make life bearable. More importantly, perhaps, there is value in lasting friendships with people who choose to share their secret obsessions, who elect to treat each other as blood relatives, laying bare their defining truths.

RECOMMENDED
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THE LARGESSE OF THE SEA MAIDEN: Stories
Denis Johnson
Random House
ISBN 978-0-8129-8863-5
Hardcover
Short Fiction

I will forever associate Denis Johnson with The Velvet Underground, thanks to his short story “Jesus’ Son” and the collection of the same name, which in turn took their titles from a line in the Velvet Underground’s classic song “Heroin.” Indeed, I listened to the V.U canon --- The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/White Heat,  and The Velvet Underground --- repeatedly while reading THE LARGESSE OF THE SEA MAIDEN, a posthumous collection of Johnson’s shorter fiction which he finished shortly before his death in early 2017. The contents demonstrate that Johnson, even in his final days, was taking new routes to familiar territories while making virgin explorations into new ones. 

THE LARGESSE OF THE SEA MAIDENS is in all the best ways longer and deeper than its two hundred plus pages might otherwise indicate. This is particularly true of the title story, which opens the collection. The story consists of a series of observations made by an individual in his early sixties --- we don’t learn his name until close to the very end of the story --- who is vaguely unsatisfied with his job at a San Diego advertising agency. His musings, which change topics every couple of pages or so, are more about other people than about himself, but we learn much about the narrator as well, particularly when he returns to New York, where he originally worked, to receive an award for a commercial he had created some years before. The story is worthwhile on several levels but especially for the observation contained in its next to last paragraph, which will resonate particularly with readers of a certain (advanced) age. The second story, “The Starlight on Idaho,” finds Johnson back in familiar territory but with a very different presentation. The story consists of a series of letters written by “Cass” --- Mark Cassandra --- who is in a substance abuse rehabilitation center housed in what was once a transient hotel. The letters which are meant to be read, rather than sent, are written as part of the treatment. Anyone who has attempted to get a grip on a substance problem --- or dealt with someone with such a problem --- with recognize Cass through his soul-baring epistles addressed to everyone from his mother --- currently nearing the conclusion of her third decade in prison --- and his sponsor to the Devil and the Pope. There is some occasional dark and grim humor sprinkled throughout “The Starlight on Idaho” but it is tragic in tone. Cass’s odds of success, alas, don’t seem good by the end of the story, but you never know. 

We come next to “Strangler Bob,” the title being the nickname of one of the characters in the story encountered during the narrator’s --- an unfortunate nicknamed “Dink” ---  incarceration in county lockup. The story is unforgettable if deceptively simple, even as it seems to function as a reminder to the reader to never, ever perform any action that has the remote possibility of resulting in jail time. Johnson, however, liked to proceed in one direction during a story only to suddenly veer off toward another vaguely related compass point near the end, and he does so to great and frightening effect here in the last page or so, with the words and sentences rushing out in an awful and frightening torrent as it describes a life wasted and dangerous. There is no such sudden diversion, however, in “Triumph Over the Grave,” its optimistic title belied by what actually occurs. Johnson was almost obviously contemplating his own imminent demise when he crafted this tale of death witnessed and experienced, but even that knowledge will not prepare you for the last sentence of this story. Reading it is like walking into a dark closet and realizing, a moment too late, that it is actually an elevator shaft. Don’t peek ahead without reading what comes before; it simply will not have the same effect. The collection concludes with “Doppelganger, Poltergeist,” which is perhaps the most whimsical tale of the five, dealing with the most fully realized conspiracy theory concerning the life and death of Elvis Presley that I have encountered to date (and that includes the Jimmy Ellis/Orion mythos). Yet, even here, Johnson manages a dark swerve that makes the tale, like the rest of them in this collection, unforgettable. 

THE LARGESSE OF THE SEA MAIDEN is a collection to be read, and read again, and again. Johnson’s prose and delivery is spare, telling little but revealing much. Is there a favorite story here? Yes. In the words of the punchline of the old vaudeville joke, “All of ‘em.” It’s a terrific collection with which to end a life and career, or, indeed, to begin one such. Very strongly recommended. 

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub
© Copyright 2018, The Book Report, Inc. All rights reserved.
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The best short fiction embraces the limitations of the form and turns them into foundational strengths. There’s a power in brevity that many writers can never fully harness, their work coming off as either overwritten or clumsily truncated.

But when someone displays a true mastery, literary brilliance often follows.

And so it is with “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” a quintet of stories from the late Denis Johnson that explore the writer’s longstanding fascination with the freaks and fakes that exist on the fringes of society. Each one of these five tales can be held up as a masterpiece and a masterclass, powerfully evocative and poetically emotive even as the unsavory seediness and/or deliberate disconnect displayed by the characters bubbles and oozes to the surface.

The collection kicks off with the titular story. It’s a series of memories, fragments of a life lived almost in absentia. An adman by the name of Bill Whitman is floating through the world, dispassionately observing his surroundings with a keen, yet ultimately distant eye. Snippets of description – about the animated ad for which he won an award or the dinner party in which a former soldier’s scars become an unexpected focus – flash by, tied together by connective tissue thin and thoughtful.

“The Starlight on Idaho” is an epistolary piece, unfolding in a series of letters written by the protagonist, a recovering addict who has taken up residence in the titular structure, a former motel that has been converted into a rehabilitation center. He writes to old friends, to family, to his sponsor and even to some higher (and lower) spiritual powers – all in an effort to truly get better. What glimpses of the past we get seem to indicate that he wasn’t always sincere in his recovery pursuits, but he’s ready know – even if he does still have plenty of doubts.

Next is “Strangler Bob,” a weird and hallucinatory journey through a small county lockup in 1967. A young man is sentenced to six weeks for stealing a car and crashing it into a utility pole. His roommate is the Bob of the title, locked up and awaiting sentencing for deeds far darker than a mere joyride. We also meet some of the other lost souls within the walls and watch the rhymeless, reasonless wanderings that they undertake as they simply try to get by.

“Triumph Over the Grave” revolves around another favorite type of Johnson’s – the middle-aged writer whose degree of success is difficult to define. This writer’s story revolves around his interactions with friends whose deaths are looming and his struggles to give them what they need from him while grappling with his own misgivings about what lies ahead.

Finally, we have “Doppelganger, Poltergeist,” another writer-centric tale in which a once-aspiring poet (now resigned to the “those who can’t, teach” side of that chestnut of an aphoristic equation) becomes wrapped up in the unhinged orbit of a talented, Elvis-obsessed writer. What follows is a deep dive into the myriad ways that loss and grief can open doors that lead in unwanted directions, down paths where misery and anger and lunatic conspiracy abound.

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is a short book, but not a short read. Johnson is a master of quality over quantity, crafting exquisite sentences that capture feelings with poetic precision. His prose demands savoring; one can find oneself turning these turns of phrase over and over, re-reading and re-experiencing the words as they evoke a dirty beauty rendered all the more stunning by their grit. The language builds in the brain and haunts the heart, mining the mire for a sense of the sublime.

A rehab is described as “a salvage yard for people who totaled their souls.” A writer’s welcome resignation upon examining another’s work is evoked: “They were the real thing, line after line of the real thing, and as I held them in my hands a secret anguish relaxed its grip on my heart, and I accepted I’d never be a poet, only a teacher of poets.” Questions posed to the reader, wondering “if you’re like me, if you collect and squirrel away certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you.”

The stories are exquisite.

There are plenty of people out there who consider Denis Johnson to be one of the finest writers of his generation. His National Book Award and pair of Pulitzer Prize nominations certainly don’t hurt his case. “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is the last such collection we’re going to get from this seminal talent, a brilliant and idiosyncratic crawl along society’s underbelly, a place of duty and desperation where sadness and strength aren’t mutually exclusive. A remarkable work and a fitting goodbye from a literary great.
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Hot damn. I am so sad we will have no more stories from Denis Johnson now that this collection is out in the world.  Gritty, tough, and unflinching. Five killer stories. (“Strangler Bob” is set IN the Johnson County Jail, which is two blocks from the UI where Denis Johnson once taught. That was very unexpected.)
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I've never read Denis Johnson before, and I'm not sure I will read more from him. This "collection of short stories" first appeared to have a rhythm and pattern to it, the stories connected by "character" and train of thought, but then it veered way off with a completely different tone of story. If the preceding entries had not been connected as they were, this would have been less jarring. However, Johnson does have a wonderful turn of phrase and poetic nature to his writing, so I'm on the fence when it comes to recommending to others.
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Denis Johnson (July 1, 1949 – May 24, 2017) was an American writer best known for his short story collection Jesus' Son (1992) and his novel Tree of Smoke (2007), which won the National Book Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Train Dreams, originally published as a story in The Paris Review in 2002, was published as a novella in 2011 and was a finalist for that year's Pulitzer Prize (a year in which the Pulitzer board made the rare decision not to award a prize for fiction). 

Johnson passed away from liver cancer in May of list year. His final work, a book of short stories titled The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is being published posthumously on January 16. 

This is my introduction to Johnson’s work. I’m not generally a big fan of story collections although there have been exceptions over the years. This is definitely an interesting and original collection, featuring down and out damaged characters, men on the margins, dealing with crime, addiction, obsession, madness and death. I particularly enjoyed the title story, which I understand had been first published in The New Yorker some years ago.

In starred reviews from both, Booklist calls it a “gathering of psychologically revelatory, spiritually inquisitive, and grimly funny stories about the derailed and the deranged” and Kirkus says it is as “graceful and death-stalked as his work ever was.”

While I can’t say that I loved all of these stories myself, I can appreciate Johnson’s talent and am saddened to know that this will be the last work from this acclaimed writer.
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I think I like, but don't love, Denis Johnson's writing. I thought Train Dreams was excellent; beautiful and spare. I've read Jesus' Son which seemed like it was written by a different person and full of manic energy and anxiety. I've never been motivated to check out Tree of Smoke, but was happy to check out Largesse of the Sea Maiden when the publisher offered it through Net Galley.

The stories weren't all gems but the strong ones were enough to lift the others. The title story is a long, wonderful look at human interaction. Another highlight was the last story, touching on Elvis and his place in American myth with a coincidental lightness that reminded me of Paul Auster.
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Denis Johnson holds an iconic place in contemporary American fiction and poetry.  Winner of the National Book Award for his 2007 novel Tree of Smoke, Johnson’s 1992 short story collection Jesus’ Son remains a cult classic.  Johnson died in May 2017.  For a casual reader to assess Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, his posthumous short story collection, feels almost blasphemous.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden contains five short stories.  The title story, initially published in The New Yorker in 2014, reads like an immediate 21st century classic.  Johnson portrays Bill Whitman, a man of 62, through a series of first person reminisces extending back to his college years at Columbia.  Whit’s aware that he’s “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 occasion prompting his reminisces is a trip from his home in San Diego to New York City to accept an award for an animated television commercial of “a brown bear chasing a gray rabbit,” a 30 second spot commercial that aired during a Super Bowl.  Whit’s reminisces include a dinner party “we’d enjoyed so much we hoped Elaine would serve us the whole thing all over again,” lunch with colleagues, and the death of a mysterious and solitary occasional friend who apparently regarded Whit as his closest friend.  Whit finds himself “assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life—the distance I’ve traveled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms—that I almost crashed the car.”  Whit realizes that “All I’d done in better than two decades was to tread forward until I reached the limit of certain assumptions, and step off.”  

What transforms “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” into a classic is that despite Whitman’s reminisces, sadness, and regrets, he displays minimal self-awareness of his relationships with others and especially with his current and two former wives.  In fact, the occasion that elicits the most regret from Whitman is his chance meeting in a hotel men’s room with Marshall Zane, the son of a colleague from twenty-five years ago.  Whitman confuses Marshall with Carl, Marshall’s father who died three years earlier.  As Marshall leaves the men’s room, Whit hears himself saying “Tell your father that I said hello.”

“The Starlight on Idaho” is also highly engaging, told through a series of letters written by Mark Cassandra from the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center (and perhaps best read while listening to Amy Winehouse blaring in your headphones).  Cass writes letters to old friends, old schoolmates (“Dear Jennifer Johnston, Well, to catch you up on things, the last four years have really kicked my ass.  I try to get back to that point I was at in the fifth grade where you sent me a note with a heart on it [that] said ‘Dear Mark I really like you,’” his rehabilitation sponsor, his father and his grandmother, Pope John Paul, Satan, his sister and brother, his psychiatrist, and “friends and neighbors in the universe.”  Cass’ letters document his attempts to come to terms with his addictions and his relationships; and his struggles with Antabuse and recovery.  The letters range from comic to tragic to pathetic, and all paint a fully believable portrait of Mark Cassandra .

“Triumph Over the Grave,” a story about a friend witnessing the final declines and deaths of old friends largely isolated from their families and other friends, was moving in places if more predictable than either “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” or “The Starlight on Idaho.”  “Strangler Bob” and “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist” both disappointed.  Dennis Johnson being Dennis Johnson, both feature some lovely passages of great poignancy.  Here, for example, from “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist”: “Writing.  It’s easy work. The equipment isn’t expensive, and you can pursue this occupation anywhere.  You make your own hours, mess around the house in your pajamas, listening to jazz recordings and sipping coffee while another day makes its escape” and “Some of my peers believe I’m famous.  Most of my peers have never heard of me.  But it’s nice to think you have a skill, you can produce an effect.  I once entertained some children with a ghost story, and one of them fainted.” But “Strangler Bob” felt forced to me, and “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist” was a struggle to read from start to finish.

How to rate a short story collection with stories ranging from “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” an instant classic and worthy of 5 stars, to “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist”, tiresome and perhaps worthy of only 3 stars?  Largely on the strengths of the title story as well as “The Starlight on Idaho,” which are not to be missed, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden overall rates 4 stars.

I would like to thank NetGalley and Penguin Random House for making this copy available to me.
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Wow. I don't know where to start. I guess at my beginning - I first heard about this book in late 2017 on a list of "Most Anticipated" books for 2018. I was not familiar with Denis Johnson, but I was intrigued by what I learned about him and his writing. By the time I had heard of Denis Johnson and wanted to discover more, he had died and I knew that this book of short stories would be published posthumously.

It was impossible to remove from my mind, the fact that this was a posthumous work. Death is very much a theme in this collection. What strikes me most is not that death appears in the stories, but the very ordinary-ness of how it comes up. The way that death can affect people, but also that It's a bit trivial in that it happens to everyone - we know it's part of the deal - yet, there's something so profound about it that makes it the most extraordinary ordinary thing that humans face. Perhaps I need a little more time to process everything I've just read.

I need to read more of Denis Johnson's work. It was extremely compelling to read, I enjoy his writing. From what I understand, his writing has always tended to be a bit dark, so it's hard to say how much his own mortality and battle with liver cancer was on his mind as he wrote these stories. I look forward to reading more and taking a deeper dive into the life of Denis Johnson.
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