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Courtesy of Penguin Random House

February 6, 2018

Discussing Death from Beyond the Grave: Denis Johnson’s Final Stories

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Few authors can place their readers in wildly uncomfortable situations with unreliable characters and still leave them with a sense of poignancy like Denis Johnson. In his long-awaited collection of stories The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Johnson weaves together five fairly disjunctive tales, all of which mimic the style of Jesus’s Son, one of his most accredited works.

However, in his most recent book, published posthumously in January 2018, Johnson’s writing is slightly darker than his previous works. There’s something more resonant about the lessons these stories teach the reader, considering that they come from the grave. Perhaps Johnson describes the experience of reading his work best in the opening of “Strangler Bob” when he says, “you hop into a car, race off in no particular direction, and blam, hit a power pole.”

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is in many ways a follow-up to Jesus’s Son in that it shares some of the same characters, but more so in the way it evokes the same sort of humanizing tone to discuss recurring struggles in his stories. Jesus’s Son, published in 1992, was noted for its whacky characters that illustrate the tragedies of American life, such as drug addiction, alcoholism, prison, and mental illness. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden accomplishes a similar goal through the use of colloquial language that is direct and honest, sometimes even brutally so.

With characters ranging from rehab patients to writers, Johnson presents a diverse range of protagonists with similar pains. The segmented structure reflects the scatterbrained state of the characters, whether it be drug or life-induced. Many of them recount failed romantic and familial relationships, such as Cass in “The Starlight on Idaho,” and just as many are metaphorically or literally stuck, such as the inmates in “Strangler Bob.” Nearly all of them, though, are confronted by pervasive images of death, whether it be their own or that of a friend or family member. The salient mortality of his characters painfully reflects Johnson’s own. He completed the book while battling liver cancer.

Johnson portrays social outcasts calling to be accepted by the book’s readers. While nearly all of them have committed various crimes to different degrees, the characters are endlessly endearing. Take Mark Cassandra, or Cass, as he asks to be called. In “The Starlight on Idaho,” he attempts to earnestly write letters to all the people he knows, beginning with his fifth grade crush, Jennifer Johnston. But quickly his confessions to friends and family members devolve to reflect a profound anger and pain in letters that address forces such as God and Satan. It is this kind of deep emotion that forces us to empathize with characters similar to Cass who are present throughout the book.

Despite the morbidity to the collection, Denis Johnson’s final works hold within them a redemptive sort of transience. The characters actively document the truth of their lives throughout various mental states and drug hazes, and in doing so memorialize themselves beyond death. This effort is another reason why the characters in this collection are inextricably linked with Johnson himself — The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is ultimately a memorialization of Denis Johnson and stands as an impressive monument to his literary career.

 

Victoria Horrocks is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at vrh23@cornell.edu