If the circumstances of a not-untypical Denis Johnson character are defined by the story The Starlight on Idaho – “on” not “over” because it’s actually a rehab facility and Idaho is the name of a street – then a likely destiny is laid out by the narrator’s grandma: “You’ll end up buried in a strange town with your name spelled wrong on your grave.” This warning has, nevertheless, a certain allure of its own– a beat-down version of Keats’s “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
Johnson’s death in May of this year, aged 67, made clear the discrepancy between the way his name was writ in America – large – where his wayward originality was part of a recognised tradition, and the fervid but limited support he enjoyed in the UK. His big novel was Tree of Smoke (Vietnam, CIA), but his best books were probably the shortest: The Name of the World (a weird campus novel), Train Dreams (an epic of the history of the American northwest in 116 mind-blowing pages), and the very druggy, highly influential story collection Jesus’ Son.
Review: Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
Some of the stories in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden pick up where Jesus’ Son left off in 1992. Fuckhead, the quaintly named narrator of those stories, had a fondness for his $60 Chevrolet on the grounds that it was “the kind of thing you could bang into a phone pole with and nothing would happen at all”. Strangler Bob in the new book opens with a similar bit of automotive nous: “You hop into a car, race off in no particular direction, and blam, hit a power pole. Then it’s off to jail.”
Jails are familiar stations of the cross for Johnson’s people. In this one, the titular strangler’s cellmates are the happy beneficiaries of a magazine brought in by a visitor, a page of which has been soaked with a potent psychedelic. Less happily, it has not been evenly soaked, so their experiences become scarily lop-sided – and not at all enhanced by a qualified confession from Strangler Bob about his wife: “We charcoaled a couple T-bone steaks and drank a bottle of imported Beaujolais red wine, and then I sort of killed her a little bit.”
In terms of set and setting, it’s as inappropriate a place to trip as the medical examination – for a locked knee – attended by the narrator of Triumph Over the Grave. Wrongly assuming the exam will take place in a private room, he finds himself in an auditorium where the orthopaedic surgeon is strutting his stuff before an audience of students. The acid focuses attention on the pain, but it also makes that pain seem “cosmically funny”.
He led a certain life and found ways of giving expression to that life with varying degrees of imaginative embellishment
Both halves of this phrase bear emphasis. Whatever Johnson had gone through, however he expressed it on the page, it would all have been wasted had it not ended up being funny, because then a major percentage of wisdom would have been missing. An incident from one of the most famous stories in Jesus’ Son is like a bombed-out remake of Steve Martin’s old arrow-through-the-head routine. You know the one: guy walks into hospital with a knife in his eye. Informed by the nurse that he’d better lie down, the casualty – played by Johnson himself in the film of the book – replies: “OK, I’m certainly ready for something like that.” In the acid-trip jail, meanwhile, the narrator comes to the conclusion that his companions – Bob excepted – “may have been not human beings, but wayward angels.” And with that we’re right back to where we started, with the publication of Johnson’s first novel, Angels, in 1983.
Since then, he’s been plenty venerated and honoured, but I suspect that winning the National Book award for Tree of Smoke made about the same difference to his writing life that not even being longlisted might have done: none. In the last piece in the new book, Doppelgänger, Poltergeist, about a poet who becomes obsessed with the idea that Elvis died at birth – it’s a long story – someone points out that the “vapid, tedious” work of Presley’s later years was due to the influence of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. “Inside every one of us lives a poisoner like Tom Parker.” Reluctant to admit to such self-betrayal, writers blame publishers for pressuring them to be more “commercial”. In fact, publishers seem extraordinarily willing to encourage the likes of Johnson to remain faithful to the highest (which might be synonymous with lowest) sense of their vocation.
Not that Johnson needed much encouragement. On the one hand, this was because the writing came from the depth of his being that is Dostoevskian. At a certain point, I suspect, writing was the only thing left for him. On the other, this somewhat ponderous diagnosis is entirely compatible with Johnson’s own take on the mystery of literary production: “It’s easy work,” confides the narrator of Triumph over the Grave. “You don’t have to be high-functioning or even, for the most part, functioning at all… Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light. It’s not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie – 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.”
Tree of Smoke author Denis Johnson dies aged 67
Now this comes from within a fiction, not from a Paris Review interview about his craft, but it sounds about right. He led a certain life and found ways of giving expression to that life, with varying degrees of imaginative embellishment. After a while, that too – the expressing, the inventing – became parts of the life which were, in turn, folded into the mix, so he wrote about being a writer, though this writer both was and was not the author of the book you’re now reading about.
But here’s the thing, a point about his work and voice-driven fiction generally that might best be made with reference to Bob Dylan. Suppose, when Dylan sang the line “I just reached a place” at the start Going, Going, Gone, we’d wired him up to some kind of advanced polygraph that detected not lies but truths. Every time he sung this line, the polygraph would confirm the simple fact that he had just reached a place, even though circumstantially this was impossible to verify. When Johnson writes, “I’ve been arrested about eight times, shot twice, not twice on one occasion, but once on two different occasions etc etc, and I think I got run over once but I don’t even remember it”, we believe him. Ditto when he notes that random cumulus formations “made the morning sky look like a large, comfortable bed”. From here, it’s a very small step or stumble into the cosmic or visionary – before he lapses back into deadpan pandemonium.
The secret of all this is the shifting wattage, the slipshod magnificence and crazy wonder of the Johnsonian sentence. Clause by clause, word by word, anything becomes plausible. Control is achieved through willing proximity to its loss. It seems he’s “just filling a notebook with jazz”, but then these directionless improvisations acquire the weight of stories. Sideways drift gives way to narrative. So let’s hand the wheel back to the narrator at the Starlight who has “nothing to show for 36 years on this earth. Except that God is closer to me than my next breath. And that’s all I’ll ever need or want. If you think I’m bullshitting, kiss my ass. My story is the amazing truth.”
•The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to guardianbokshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
JANUARY 24, 2018
IN THE LAST LINES of “Triumph Over the Grave,” the fourth story in this excellent short story collection, Denis Johnson writes, “It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.” This is the sort of passage that defies the line between fiction and autobiography, between narrator and author. Johnson died last year from liver cancer, and given the humor and wisdom of much of his previous work, it seems fitting that he would make a wry observation on his own mortality from beyond the grave, a maneuver that constitutes a kind of “triumph.”
Sometimes when reading the obituary of a writer, the praise by which he or she is invariably described seems outdated; this was not the case with Denis Johnson. The expressions of love on social media and in columns of literary journals and newspapers around the country showed the outpouring of a very current appreciation. His National Book Award–winning short story collection, Jesus’ Son, has been recognized as one of the essential American texts of the past 30 years. Reading the Twitter elegies and articles mourning his death, one got the sense that this was a book that lived on the nightstands of many readers well into the 21st century.
It’s easy to become torn between two impulses reviewing the posthumously published book of such a widely beloved author. On the one hand, one wants to read the work strictly on its own merits and without too much consideration of the circumstances surrounding it. On the other, how is this possible? Questions about the work acting as a sort of end cap to Johnson’s career lurk everywhere behind the more conventional critique. However, that problem does not impugn much upon The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, and this is for two reasons.
First, the stories here are so explicitly conscious of death that considering them not only as the final chapter of the author’s oeuvre, but also as a commentary on the last days of the author’s life, seems essential. The lines quoted above are no aberration. The entire collection pointedly meditates on death, loss, and failure. That fact somehow relieves the pressure of reading the work cleanly, so to speak, by placing it apart from the author’s biography.
Second, the stories are so strong that there’s no worry that matters outside the text could crowd out their effect, even when real-world events insinuate as strongly as they do here. The conflict between the two readings instead becomes another layer, two parallel themes running underneath it all.
I’m reminded of Stanley Fish’s take on Paradise Lost, his contention that the hesitation to attribute hero status to Satan is itself a performance of the inward consciousness of sin that the poem is meant to rehearse. The same kind of dynamic is at play here, where different readings coalesce into something bigger. One shifts between an interpretation of these stories as a free-standing fiction, and as a culmination of real-world moments — not where the vacillation between the two muddies the hermeneutical act but where they carry forward the central theme of grief, the way death itself evokes loss of orientation. This meta-theme of synchronic and diachronic time reconciled in the act of death persists here like a pulsing drone beneath the narrative action.
But this could be misleading. To say the work is preoccupied with death makes it sound overly ponderous or dour; this is far from the case. These are gorgeous, honest, funny stories. When an author becomes famous enough, he writes less within the context of current trends as against the expectations set by his own body of work. But even by Johnson’s own high standard, these stories soar. Part of their brilliance lay, as already mentioned, in their powerful meditation on the commonplace of defeat — in exploring the question of what death can claim and what it cannot. But the other part is that they’re written with such verve and originality that it almost doesn’t matter what they’re about. One forgets the weight of the subject matter in the joy of the prose.
Johnson’s writing, here and elsewhere, homes in on the experience of the present moment. His subjects are often down-and-out characters, drug abusers, vagabonds, prisoners, people on the fringe. But these fringe-dwellers act as a sort of synecdoche for the immediacy of human experience itself. His prose telegraphs an infectious sense of nowness. It feels both urgent and untroubled. It’s easy for the reader to breathe and live in his world; when moments of unexpected drama appear, as they do perhaps more frequently than in stories with more conventional narrative temporality, their effect is easily felt. Drama happens in a Denis Johnson story with all the humor and random cruelty of real life.
But as much his work exudes a meditative nowness, his sense of now is not uncomplicated. The moment is always haunted by memory. Johnson writes about neither the past nor the present. He writes about the present memory of the past, replete with all manner of reflection and revision.
The first story of the collection, and that from which the book takes its name, begins with a dinner party. An aging ad man living in San Diego tells the tale of a successful get-together among friends that takes an unfortunate turn. During the post-dinner conversation, the subject of silence comes up, and everyone in the group talks about the most profound silence they had experienced.
Johnson characteristically veers from drama to comedy in these micro-vignettes. “One said it was his wife’s voice when she told him she didn’t love him anymore.” Another “said it hurt his ears whenever his brother opened his mouth in public, because his brother had Tourette’s syndrome and erupted with remarks like ‘I masturbate! Your penis smells good!’ in front of perfect strangers on a bus.”
The heady mixture of drama and comedy sets the tone for what’s next. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan tells of the silence after he was wounded: “He said the most silent thing he’d ever heard was the land-mine taking off his right leg outside Kabul.” Another member of the party asks to see his wound, and the veteran agrees to show her only if she kisses it. This round of stories about silence yields its own awkward silence as the woman succumbs to the peer pressure of the rest of the group, but then breaks down crying before she can go through with the kiss.
But Johnson isn’t done scaffolding layers of thematic meaning here. The anecdotes of the individual members of the dinner party expand into the story of the party itself, which then kicks off the main narrative movement of the story: the narrator’s reflection on his life. “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.”
These silences grow in the reader’s mind. Each moment in the story carries meaning in relation to the previous, but this meaning is not spelled out in abstractions but through the deliberate juxtaposition of moments carrying meaning as the reader assigns it.
Denis Johnson has been called a stylist, but this is wrong: his writing is more reflective of voice than style. Less than a “stream of consciousness,” which suggests a sort of stylized index of current lived experience, Johnson’s prose curates such through a finely honed, even disciplined, sense of who the central character is and what matters to that person. He prunes as readily as he effuses. He writes directly to a literate reader — one who comes to the table already familiar with the various stylizations available to the short prose form, and Johnson switches between them, parodies them, or avoids them altogether.
Just as the protagonist of one of the stories in this collection, “Doppleganger, Poltergeist,” speaks of dropping his “poet’s persona” to “masquerade […] as a literary critic,” Denis Johnson’s prose puts on stylistic masks and then takes them off. His work is a facsimile of the process of writing, rather than its product. What emerges from the exercise is not the fact of masking, or some grotesque pantomime of honesty personified, but the honesty of the impulse to hide oneself.
Of the five stories in this collection, “Triumph Over the Grave” showcases the collection’s recurring motif of death and defeat most explicitly. The failures depicted here are not heroic, nor usually dramatic in any way. We see several deaths, but they happen in advanced age, after long illnesses. We see characters finding their rock bottoms, but no road-to-Damascus epiphany awaits them. If they find solace, it’s within the context of lowered expectations.
These failures and missed opportunities have everything to do with the aforementioned intersection of diachronic and synchronic time — the theme of nowness versus a culmination of thens. Johnson seems to suggest that the present moment can act as a bulwark against the pain of the past. Loss and failure can never be final, because they end, annihilated into the ever-expiring now. Likewise, the present holds infinite opportunity to relegate its power to that of memory and reflection, a lens through which to see the real truth. This dance between present and past is the space within which Johnson builds his world.
There’s the heartbreaking episode in “Triumph Over the Grave” where the narrator’s friend, Link, languishes on his deathbed in wait for the love of his life to visit before the end. She comes finally, accompanied by her husband. A sufferer of Alzheimer’s disease, Liz remembers no one in her life except Link, her ex-husband, but she arrives too late for them to speak to one another. At other times, deaths happen offstage, related secondhand, as when the ad man narrator of the book’s eponymous story meets the son of a friend and former colleague in a public bathroom and is promptly told his friend is dead. These variations on the theme of loss, and the slow decline of time, matter less than their overarching tenor.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is a great collection of stories, full of humor and sadness and truth. It reminds us how much we’ve lost with the death of its author, as well as what that loss means.
Nathan Pensky is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow at Carnegie Mellon University. He is working on a dissertation on early modern drama and philosophy of mind, as well as his first novel.