The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
by Denis Johnson, Picador, 207pp, £14.99
“It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But may be by the time you read it.” The last sentence of the pivotal story in Denis Johnson’s new collection feels like a blow to the chest. What makes it doubly so is that Johnson knew he was dying when he wrote those lines, and that he would be dead when we read them.
Death looms large in this final book from one of America’s greatest and most illuminating writers. Johnson confronts mortality with a forthrightness which is both startling and galvanising.
He began his career as a poet and his prose gives ample evidence of this: the wayward sentences seemingly spinning out of control, reeling across the page, only to land with a swift sharp shock. Of all contemporary American novelists, Johnson was perhaps the one most interested in the divine, in transcendence and in what it is like to live in the fallen world. From the outcast losers in his debut Angels, to the markedly older characters here, there is always a deep sense of yearning in Johnson’s writing, an almost electric longing for the presence of God.
Two of the five stories find Johnson at his peak. “The Starlight on Idaho” is comprised of letters written by a rehab facility inmate who begins to see the Devil in his room. It is by turns funny, sad, profound and terrifying.
But it’s “Triumph Over the Grave”, where the narrator relates the passing of two friends and then his own approaching end, which grips the tightest. Johnson forsakes his usual hallucinogenic portrayal of reality for a more sober and elegiac tone.
This book is perhaps not the best place to start for anyone new to Johnson (that would be Train Dreams – for me, the best novel of the 21st century). Nonetheless, it demonstrates everything we lost when we lost Denis Johnson.
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