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 … 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.
Denis Johnson, in all his work, aimed to locate the hidden, actual face of things. But the new stories build without those miraculous balls of hail, and their truths are necessarily deeper, and more precise, true as you would true a wheel … It feels like the paced vision of a writer who has been made to understand that life is fairly rude and somewhat short, but that the world contains an uneven distribution of grace, and that wisdom lies in recognizing where it—such grace—has presented itself. The stories are about death and immortality, art and its reach, and they ask elemental questions about fiction, not as a literary genre but as a human tendency … These stories ask you to step into the room and listen closely. They are not showy anthems, and in many cases, they have dispensed with hindsight altogether.
...five stories, most of them longer than thirty pages, that span a range of characters and situations, yet are unified by the aspect of Johnson’s work that towers over the rest: his voice. My god, that voice. Johnson somehow manages to be both conversational and poetic, simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious ... Like any Denis Johnson work, each page of this collection is peppered with one or two tremendous lines that reach out to grab your heart ... Johnson has an astonishing power to turn from one emotion to another in a line or two. His transitions between stories, sections, and paragraphs are worth the study of every aspiring fiction writer ... The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is yet another terrific book of heart, humanity, and humor. Read and treasure it. It is a final gift from a master.
'I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere,' Fuckhead tells us in 'Car Crash,' a line that also describes what we all desired most: not a sequel [to Jesus' Son], exactly, but something with that same breezy, epiphanic quality, something both familiar and new, something unexpectedly expected. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is that book. But it isn’t a sequel, or derivative of any of Johnson’s earlier work. It is its own perfect thing, and Lord preserve me, I think I love it every bit as much as I love Jesus’ Son ... Characters act in Largesse with evident conviction, but they don’t understand why; others may or may not be who they say they are ... Johnson has always seemed to let his stories lead him where they want to go; in some of his less cohesive work, these wanderings can be fascinating but unsatisfying. Here, the extra layer of self-consciousness, far from complicating matters, brings them into sharper focus: Johnson’s seeking is the narrator’s seeking, is Miller’s, is Link’s, is ours.
Now there is a 20th and last book, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,which Johnson finished just before his death. It collects five short stories, all of them death-haunted … The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is only Johnson’s second collection of stories, but it’s further proof that the form was his natural mode … The Largesse of the Sea Maiden splits neatly into halves, of young men and older men and their reckonings with death: the addict’s brushes with death, murders intentional and accidental committed by convicts, deaths of friends, stillborns, the ashes of 9/11.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, the last work Johnson completed, makes a fitting bookend to a celebrated career, as well as a surprising counterpoint to Jesus’ Son … The resulting batch of new stories may be less stylish, less brilliant, but they deal in more profound themes. They’re the work of a writer steeped in the mysteries of the world, who sees the Grim Reaper approaching (Johnson all but explicitly invokes his own death in one story) and has nothing left to prove, but much strange insight to impart … The Largesse of the Sea Maiden seem to see, as Wallace Stevens put it, ‘Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’ Perhaps this point-of-view comes from proximity to death. Certainly with that comes self-consciousness, and The Largesse of the Sea Maiden has a reflexive dimension that Jesus’ Son lacks.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden picks up, to a large extent, where Jesus’ Son left off. Only a few characters recur, but these are essentially the same unlucky bipeds, sometimes glimpsed a few decades later. Their friends are dying and their own bodies have begun to betray them ... The stories in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden are not as cohesive or as plangent as those in Jesus’ Son. This is a lesser book, but only in the sense that the best later Sinatra records were lesser than In the Wee Small Hours, or that Neil Young could not in later decades recapture the mood of After the Gold Rush or Tonight’s the Night. These stories drift, but Johnson finesses his way through them, his prose vernacular and elevated at the same time. One can say about this book what one narrator says about the poems of a writer he loves: 'They were the real thing, line after line of the real thing.'”
In Johnson’s sticky-as-Velcro prose, The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden ruminates on mortality and what a life might yield. 'Certain odd moments' and bizarre repetitions occur with startling frequency in these five stories ... This collection is not that of an old man wishing he’d done something different. Instead these characters accept their messy existences while scrambling for grace, frequently struck by just how goddamned wild and weird life can be ... This strange sense of interconnectedness is aided and abetted by the structure of these narratives. Reflecting the associative nature of memory, the stories bend and wind, collecting more and more repetitions along the way. Some pieces circle their subjects more tightly, while others wander seemingly off-course before their endings make clear what Johnson has been up to the whole time ... 'Triumph Over The Grave' also underscores what a gift Largesse is, as the book puts forth Johnson’s thoughts on mortality—candid and plaintive and often terribly funny—so close to his own death. There’s a kind of uncanny magic at play here. In this his final work, he expands beyond the familiar while still giving us the writer we’ve always known; he allows, once again, the visceral pleasure of his strange, chewy language.
Like those direct addresses to his future readers that Whitman scatters throughout Leaves of Grass, Johnson, in these stories, anticipates talking across the abyss that separates the quick from the dead … Most of these stories are terrific, and two — the first and the last — are out-of-this-world … The Largesse of The Sea Maiden contains the kind of work every writer would like to go out on: fresh, profound and singular. It affirms literature's promise to believers, the gift of eternal voice.
Throughout is Johnson’s familiar anguish at our passing over. What makes The Largesse of the Sea Maiden different is that in this case Johnson knew his own time was short, and embarked on his material with an admirable and pitiless openness he conveys through his characters ... The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, as a volume, drills down into and through what is tolerable until it hits a powerful vein of the painfully mortal and lasting. If it ends with a yawp of tragicomedy in the Elvis Presley story, 'Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,' it’s only to remind us that Dante, too, was a toiler in the comedic fields, no matter how brutal and austere his triune cosmogony.
The stories in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden are pleasantly baggy. We still get Johnson’s signature compressed poetry in spots, but long stretches intentionally meander. The blitzkrieg stories of Jesus’s Son averaged about 15 pages; The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’ spreads its five tales over more than 200 pages. There’s a new metafictional undertone to much of the book, too: novelists and poets pop up again and again. Johnson’s own life, transformed into art, haunts the book’s margins. But the main thing linking The Largesse of the Sea Maiden to Jesus’s Son is the sentences. Oh, the sentences! ... Johnson offers visions and sadness and laughter. But it’s the sentences — those adamantine, poetic sentences — that made him one of America’s great and lasting writers. It’s the sentences that live on.
'Strangler Bob' is a prison story with a colorful cast of characters; 'The Starlight on Idaho' is the first-person account of a man trying to escape his addictions and rise up from his sad existence. Neither story is entirely satisfying, though they have their moments. The other three stories, though, are remarkable ... ohnson was also a poet, and he has the poet’s gift for finding the perfect image to encapsulate an idea or experience, what T.S. Eliot called the objective correlative ... Although his characters are often diminished and winnowed by their struggles with life, the narrative voice that describes their travails gives evidence of an imagination that is nearly boundless in its generosity and abundance.
Johnson’s stories tread a crooked path through illness, addiction, criminality, mania and simple existential confusion. His gift is to extract the beauty in all that brokenness, like the painters who pulled holy light out of the wounds of martyrs … Though these are longer, fuller, rangier stories than the strobing fever dreams of Jesus’ Son, they possess the same incredible emotional density. They feel squeezed, to borrow Johnson’s phrase, ‘in the almighty grip of the truth’ … Grace and oblivion are inextricably yoked in these transcendent stories, the testament of a writer who lived and worked on unusually close terms with death, until that great mystery finally stole him.
Johnson’s stories are that of a depleted and decadent civilization. He observes trains everywhere going off the rails. The joke of the title story, which is composed of many interlinked tales, is that modern life is distinctly lacking in largesse and sea maidens … His stylistic range is certainly wondrous, straddling the starkness of ‘Starlight’ and the hysterical realism of ‘Doppelgänger, Poltergeist’ … Johnson’s stories are pertinent and engaging. They hold up a mirror to society’s dregs and to that extent are flawless.
There are narrative patterns between each of the five stories which powerfully unify the book in theme and feeling. Many of them feature protagonists meditating on the people who matter — or mattered, at one point — the most to them in their lives … For Johnson’s characters, art and storytelling provide windows of understanding into human nature; it’s a lovely and timeless sentiment, one that was no doubt shared by the author himself … Here’s an author turning toward the past, conjuring up the ghosts of those he’s loved and lost, writing of wild experiences with affectionate abandon.
At times, Largesse can feel like retreading a pilgrimage to familiar lessons: God is funny and cruel and maybe a bit distracted; we can hold the same beliefs yet end up in different places. But it is a vital addition to Johnson’s oeuvre. By making the characters (somewhat) more upstanding here, Johnson collapses the distance readers can put between themselves and the wrongdoing. We too must wonder why these people and not their victims are still around to tell their tales. Johnson told aspiring authors to write as if ink were blood, because it is precious. So are farewells like this.
Herein are those unmistakable Johnsonian questers and wastrels, narcotized poets and cons, ragged pilgrims ill fit for society, all of them conveyed in prose tingling from the concussion of the sacred and profane, with a sensibility beautifully receptive to bursts of black humor … His chief concern is the language of the sublime, the embrace of awe, how to transcend the quotidian crush of our lives. He will come to be lauded not only as the holy stylist he’s always been, but as a gnostic seer shaking between damnation and deliverance.
It's easy to speculate that Johnson saw the world as something like a jail, and all of us, lucky and troubled, contrite and unrepentant, as wayward angels trapped inside. We'll never know if that's what he meant, of course; we're just left with this miraculous book, these perfect stories, the last words from one of the world's greatest writers. As one of his characters says, ‘The Past just left. Its remnants, I claim, are mostly fiction.’
...exquisitely maundering ... These stories would be profoundly moving even if Johnson were still with us, but the fact of his death last year, at the age of 67, cannot help but puncture much of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden with an air of reportage from astride the grave ... so much of this book is hopelessly – and hilariously – devoted to honouring the dying or coming to terms with looming mortality ... it's noteworthy that, more than with any previous work, Johnson has imbued his narrators with attributes that explicitly mirror his own biography ... 'The Starlight on Idaho' and 'Strangler Bob' are excellent stories that would nestle snugly with earlier, ribald works in Johnson's canon ... In these last stories, Johnson largely eschews the mania that ran rampant through so much of his most celebrated work, letting the genius emanate unencumbered.
...a major event in American letters ... The parallel America – the commercial project founded on tobacco and lubricated by booze – is also conditioned into his prose, which is sometimes streetwise and tough, and always informal, light, elegant and miraculously tender ... terribly moving ... a proper page-turner ... The last words of the story – the last words of this gorgeous collection, immanent with the warmth of its author’s spirit.
...while the new story collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden continues in similar vein, it reveals other gifts that even Johnson’s fans overlooked during his lifetime ... More usual is a dizzying mix of humour and near tragedy that leaves us unsure whether to laugh or weep, as Johnson leads us off on one of his side trips to the hospital or funeral parlour ... How could we not miss him?
Johnson's new narrators have unreliable bodies (with unreliable digestive tracts), unreliable memories, unreliable spouses and unreliable friends. Even death is unreliable, as poorly timed as it is inevitable ... Time doesn't exist — stories move forward and back through entire lifetimes — yet, the theme of lost time echoes heavily throughout the book ... The stories aren't moralizing; Johnson is creating raw portraits of deeply flawed men ... Yet even when his stories are problematic, Johnson's sentences carry great weight and beauty. The poet's ear is still there, sharp and poignant as ever ... Johnson's posthumous collection reflects his sensibilities but with a struggle to make sense of life. There's no more time to waste in meaningless bars, having meaningless conversations, yet in some ways, there was no time to waste doing anything else.
The star feature of Johnson’s fiction is indeed his sense of rhythm, although not at the level of the sentence. He was a writer who knew exactly when to switch from dialogue to digression to denouement. He also knew how to begin a story with a great cymbal-clash of event ... His final collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is no exception ... Johnson’s fictions are always hospitable to hitchhiker-narrators, characters who tell their tales for a page or two before hopping out as we speed on to another unexpected destination ... The quality that Johnson’s acolytes admire, intense moments of transcendence flaring against gritty backdrops, often feels too easy, automatic, even, in these stories ... Description mostly does the job and nothing more. Sometimes it’s more argumentative than descriptive ... If you are new to Johnson, start with Train Dreams and see how you go. If you are a devotee, then these stories are an enjoyable performance from an accomplished session musician.
As is typical of Johnson’s writing, these final stories favor situations where people are flung together by instinct or chance rather than a good sense of direction: inmates, addicts (in rehab), writers (in academia), families ... Johnson always wrote as if beyond the grave and at the bottom of one. He wasn’t afraid to own up to large, prophetic emotion, or low-down material suffering. The movement between the two, the trembling exchange of one state of consciousness for another, fixed him an elixir of estranged notes. And he was never stolid over endings, in fact they brought out the best in him, displaying the titanic struggle of his words ... This discarding of armor was assuredly a lifelong project, and in no other work of Johnson’s I’ve read has he appeared so stripped down.
While the collection is slim — five stories, just over 200 pages — it is a thrilling addition to the Johnson canon, and a stunning reminder of what we have lost ... The stories in The Largesse of The Sea Maiden are characteristic of Johnson’s approach, seemingly chaotic (sometimes to the point of absurdity) but tightly controlled. The language of each story is a deceptively precise rendering of the vernacular appropriate to each character — whether an aging ad man or a young man in jail — lending a rough realism and immediacy while simultaneously revealing greater depths. The events of the stories veer between hilarity and significance, suffused with life and abandon, but laced with loss and disillusion, delusion on the road to meaning.
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... 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 ... 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 ...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 ...a great collection of stories, full of humor and sadness and truth.
It’s the equal of and direct successor to his finest work, which most would agree are the stories in Jesus’ Son, although it was his novel Tree of Smoke that won the National Book Award ... Each of the five stories in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is in one way or another about wrapping up a life; the plots are littered with dying people, corpses, ghosts and commentary on mortality ... With The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Johnson found the perfect note to go out on — an instant classic.
It wasn’t the only subject Johnson wrote about, but it lent itself peculiarly well to his gifts: his tender eye for the grotesque, his gallows humour, his ability to articulate the intense inner lives of the variously desperate types who form the cast of this particular narrative; above all his interest in the spiritual dimension of suffering and struggle... So it’s a relief as well as a delight to find that in his last stories Johnson was working at a consistently – and surpassingly – high standard. The five longish pieces comprising this posthumous collection are all, to my mind, quite wonderful ... Johnson has always straddled the divide in American letters between Beats and straights, hipsters and squares, but I don’t remember seeing the urbane side of him nearly so much to the fore as it is here ... All five of the stories share this casually improvised surface masking steelier underpinnings. They are, to mix a metaphor, wolves in shaggy dogs’ clothing, circling in on their quarry with a deceptive purposefulness.
These four stories rank with Johnson’s best work, but the title story, a catalogue of singular moments related by a man who tells us he’s passing through life as if it were a masquerade, ranks with the best fiction published by any American writer during this short century ... Stability, striving, homeownership, prosperity — when these things enter Johnson’s work (they hardly ever do), it’s as if by accident or as part of a charade. His characters live and die on the lonely fringes, on highways and in hospitals, in bars or behind bars, scavengers and hermits in the swirl outside the zone of American normalcy ... Like Marilynne Robinson, Johnson is a thoroughly Christian writer, but while Robinson’s novels are explicitly religious, it might be news to many of Johnson’s characters if you told them what they were experiencing was a crisis of faith or a conversion ... The rest of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden splits neatly into halves, of young men and older men and their reckonings with death.
...this new collection of stories gives a more direct and relatable impression than ever of the recently departed writer. It is difficult to read The Largesse of the Sea Maiden without participating in some way of his memorial ... Some of the passages are imitative, it is true, like a conversation at a one-way peep show clearly right out of Paris, Texas, while others remind us of their brighter counterparts in Train Dreams or Jesus’ Son, but the language is finely crafted overall, and some of the sentences are truly striking in their structure... There is something about Johnson’s short fiction, after all, that we love, but seems difficult to grasp; something unbounded by the typical trajectories of published work. Perhaps this is because it channels an older form of storytelling, one which ruptures the normal images of life until they resemble the kind of dreams in which anyone can be captured or saved or thrown down and defeated.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, the late Denis Johnson’s final collection of short stories, is in many ways the opposite of The Bachelor. Rather than morph normal people into piles of clichés, Johnson gives tired characters a new life ...brimming with death — a looming sense of mortality that propels each story forward ... Much of Johnson’s legend seems to rest in his imperfections, and in many ways a blemish or two is more fitting, proof that writing is often more impressive when it acknowledges the limitations of artistry and language itself ... For a slim collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’s accomplishment is profound.
Johnson’s imagination is habitually drawn to the kind of overwhelmingly vivid experiences, drugged, maddened or violent, that are so powerful they seem like visions, like revelations charged with meaning beyond ordinary experience ... This passionate and exceptional personality is now gone from the world, surviving only in such memories and in Johnson’s work, the final instalment of which, the short stories collected in The Largesse of The Sea Maiden... Some of the stories cover the same ground as Jesus’ Son, an addict’s rock bottom seen in chastened retrospect. Others are mellower, looser and take obvious pleasure in life’s strangeness. The prose remains as deliriously alive as ever.
It's unfortunate that his early adulthood of drug addiction and alcoholism, which spilled over into his characters, blurred in critics' minds his compassion for the down-and-out that he mixed with bits of Christian forgiveness ... These sides to Johnson fill the pages of his posthumous story collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, a book that's not among his best ... They [the characters] do fit the theme of the book, which is failure, either to rise above the ordinary as the advertising man Whit in the title story or the stupid distractions that doom talented writers... Johnson's final work is tightly confined. Women are barely mentioned. His characters are middle-aged white men, and their lives seldom rise above the mundane ... Within this limited world, Johnson's carefully styled language conveys despair, pain, hopelessness, irreparable loss and glimpses of resurrection.
He returned to the heart of the American vernacular just as his lonely characters returned from the cold, coming in from the cold pursuit of individual meaning to find a community often in the most sorrowful places." One of the season's major books by any assay.
And yet, Johnson’s mastery has always been portraying such characters with sincerity and ingenuity ... The title story and “Doppelganger, Poltergeist” — which bookend the collection — are unquestionably brilliant. Here, Johnson meticulously layers narratives in a way that seems impossible without years of drafting (which, in fact, was the case).
Its narrator is a copywriter who strings together a series of brief-but-vivid vignettes from his unhappy life (a sketch of a dinner party at which everyone tries to name their favorite moment of silence, for instance). Taken together, these vignettes reveal him so fully that when we get to the end, and he mentions that an ex-wife has just called him to say she's dying, it seems perfectly in keeping with his character that he can't figure out which of his ex-wives it was. The author of these five remarkable tales may be dead, but his work will remain with us for a very long time.
The second story collection from the late Johnson is a masterpiece of deep humanity and astonishing prose … This book is an instant classic. It's filled with Johnson's unparalleled ability to inject humor, profundity, and beauty—often all three—into the dark and the mundane alike. These characters have been pushed toward the edge; through their searches for meaning or clawing just to hold onto life, Johnson is able to articulate what it means to be alive, and to have hope.
This final collection ranges up and down the class ladder; for Johnson, a sense of mortality and a struggle to make sense of our lives knew no demographic boundaries … Whether it’s a motivation to clean up or (more often) a prompt to think about the past, death is always Topic A for these characters … American literature suffered a serious loss with Johnson's death. These final stories underscore what we'll miss.