Earth Angel

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories BY Denis Johnson. Random House. Hardcover, 224 pages. $27.

The cover of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories

Dear Astronaut Selection Officer:

I am a civilian who would like to be considered for the one-year astronaut training program.

I would be most grateful if you would send me information, application forms, and any such material you feel might be helpful in this regard.


Denis H. Johnson

DENIS H. JOHNSON WROTE THE ABOVE LETTER on April 15, 1991. It’s among his papers at the Harry Ransom Center, at the University of Texas in Austin. A few years ago, I took a picture of the letter. Recently I sent it to a friend. This friend, a writer who admires and has publicly endorsed Denis Johnson, said to me, “I can’t imagine what he was thinking when he wrote this.” But I felt I could imagine exactly what he was thinking: He was looking to get off this ball. To travel to outer space. What does it mean to go to outer space? To leave your life, escape the confining universe of a mind and its world, and live to tell.

There are other ways of getting off this ball and I believe that Denis H. Johnson tried a few. The H., by the way, stands not for “Holy,” like between Jesus and Christ, but “Hale,” apparently his middle name. You can also call him Commodore. It’s what he told me I might call him when I once, long ago, wrote him a slavish letter in which I addressed him as “Mr. Johnson.” He wrote back that if I insisted on formality to call him Commodore, which was his rank. I haven’t done the biographical work to confirm it, but I don’t think he was ever a naval officer or the president of a yacht club. I take it as a joke and also not a joke. Call him Commodore. Elvis is the King and so why not?

In the spring of 1999, eight years after Denis Johnson wrote to NASA trying to get to outer space, he read at the Dia Center in New York City, along with the poet Jean Valentine. The room was packed; there were probably a thousand people there. I had arrived about three hours early for the reading, in order to land a seat (and because I was that kind of acolyte). I remember with grainy accuracy the person who was in the neighboring chair: a tall, thin guy about my age in free-box grandpa clothes and horn-rimmed glasses, shakily removing a bottle of Pepto-Bismol from the inside pocket of his coat, which he periodically took swigs from and then capped and returned to the pocket. The notes he scribbled during the reading were probably as embarrassing as mine. Luckily mine are lost. I don’t need them. I remember the poems that Johnson read, including “Traveling,” from his collection The Veil. He read “Traveling” three times. The first time, his rhythm was off, so he wanted to try it again. The second time, it seemed he wasn’t able to recapture and lasso the effect of the poem, and so he read it once more. Not for us, the audience, but to try to remember what work he’d originally thought the poem might do, back when he had written it. There is a line in it about the light coming in through a barbershop’s windows: “the shifting illumination in the place made it seem we were traveling.” The third time he read the poem, he slowed at this line. He’d reconnected.

DENIS JOHNSON UNDERSTOOD the impulse to check out. He understood a lot of things, including the contradictory nature of truth. He himself was the son of a US State Department employee stationed overseas, a well-to-do suburban American boy who was “saved” from the penitentiary, as he put it, by “the Beatnik category.” He went to college, published a book of poetry by the age of nineteen (The Man Among the Seals), went to graduate school and got an MFA, but was also an alkie drifter and heroin addict: a “real” writer, in other words (who, like any really real writer, can’t be pigeonholed by one coherent myth, or by trite ideas about the school of life). Later he got clean and became some kind of Christian, published many novels and a book of outstanding essays (Seek), lived in remote northern Idaho but traveled and wrote into multiple zones of conflict—Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and famously, in Tree of Smoke, wartime Vietnam. Perhaps being raised abroad, in various far-flung locations (Germany, the Philippines, and Japan), gave him a better feeling for the lost and ugly American, the juncture of the epic and pathetic, the suicidal tendencies of the everyday joe, which seem to have been his wellspring.

His connection to “people who totaled their souls,” as one character puts it in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, his new and final contribution to literature, is a vital tenor of his work, even a central one. His passion for wrecked people certainly spawned a kind of cult status, which was rampant in the 1990s, when I was young and Johnson came into his phosphorous popularity. It was hero worship of totaled souls, by totaled souls. Hero worship isn’t malicious. No harm is meant. And yet it’s important not to allow that phase of Denis Johnson’s fame to shape the achievements of a writer who was much more serious than a cult phenomenon might ever suggest. I see these distinctions in a way I was unable to twenty years back, because I was caught up in a narrow margin among people who read only a handful of books and only a certain kind: Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm, The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll, some Bukowski, some Burroughs, You Can’t Win by Jack Black, and Johnson’s 1992 story collection Jesus’ Son. We were young bohemians who thought you were supposed to live like that. And we only read people who lived like it. In Iowa City, where I had friends (Iowans, not anyone from the Writers’ Workshop), bar talk was all about Denis Johnson and Jesus’ Son. “He told and retold those stories until his delivery was perfect, and at that point, he wrote them down,” a crackhead I knew said to me. I later asked Denis Johnson if this was true of his process: No, it was not true. “I just wrote them the normal way,” he said, “one sentence at a time.”

Now Johnson is gone, died this May at the age of sixty-seven, which feels tragically premature. His legacy is to have overshot his ’90s cult celebrity by light-years. He outlived all that and in a way never lived it, even as he certainly did, biographically speaking. I suspect that he was only incidentally a user and drinker, but deliberately, and fatefully, a serious artist. He is not for hipsters who scribble, and crackheads who read. He is not a means to anyone else’s identity formation. He is a writer whose ambitions were in their own way as broad and burgeoning as Dostoyevsky’s. He is for all time.

Also, he’s for women, I’ll assert, at least in his work, which is the only thing that ultimately matters. Jamie, the female protagonist of Angels, his first and in a way most stunning novel, looks out the window of a bus and imagines “a great blade protruding for miles from her window, leveling the whole suburbs six feet above the ground.” Any man who could write that of a woman’s fantasies knows just what is on our minds. His women characters—like Jamie, or the tough and shadowy unnamed woman who narrates The Stars at Noon—are as complex and pissed-off as the men. (That doesn’t mean the female gender or species or whatever that is—whatever I is—doesn’t get to also be the object of longing and idealization, doesn’t get to have the largesse, let’s say, of sea maidens: be women to cry on and hold. It’s not one or the other.)

Denis Johnson, ca. 2014. Cindy Lee Johnson.
Denis Johnson, ca. 2014. Cindy Lee Johnson.

JOHNSON WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED POET and novelist before he wrote Jesus’ Son, but that work and this new collection mark out the stakes of his literary arc, in part because they are his only two collections of short stories, and for the way they mirror each other, and produce, in their differences, a clear artistic direction. The early, densely poetic scenes in Jesus’ Son have given way, in Largesse, to subtler work, which seems no longer about language virtuosity but something attenuated and humble, and even more ambitious.

The recurring character in Jesus’ Son, sometimes called Fuckhead, had the rhetorical advantage of mysterious hindsight. His was a voice that was able to compress flights of feeling and self-pity and corrosive regret into the eternally quotable:

We all believed we were tragic, and we drank.

We would be put a stop to, and it wouldn’t be our fault.

Sometimes what I wouldn’t give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m., telling lies to one another, far from God.

Where are my women now, with their sweet wet words and ways, and the miraculous balls of hail popping in a green translucence in the yards?

The “green translucence in the yards” is high-flown, and yet I do not doubt that it was the salient vision to share. Every sentiment and gesture in Jesus’ Son feels true, and not all writers approach anything true in what they write, but instead have other types of gifts, and skills, for braiding imagery or manipulating cadence, pulling off stunts. Literature, even really good literature, is sometimes more like a beautiful baroque carpet than it is like life. 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. Jesus’ Son, by comparison, seems like work produced by the forceful energy of all the saved-up characters bursting to be seen and known by those who weren’t there, weren’t in the bar or out at the farm on the Old Highway. Weren’t riding around with Georgie, high on stolen hospital meds. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden operates on a different set of registers; 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. The characters make narrative from what they witness: such as an Afghanistan war veteran telling a group of friends at a dinner party that he’ll remove his prosthetic leg if a woman who is present agrees to kiss his stump; she refuses but later marries this vet. As the narrator says to the reader: “You and I know what goes on.” Another man, wandering in his bathrobe in the quiet of night, encounters a sign for a store he believes offers “Sky and Celery,” but in fact it says “Ski and Cyclery.” “What goes on” is never a given, and always subjective. Wisps of narrativizing in this final collection shape thoughts that are sly, open-ended, and meticulously wise. It could be that the more a person knows, the less he needs to perform his gifts. 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.

Mark Cassandra, in “The Starlight on Idaho,” is less than a week into rehab and has all the raw fragility of a person newly in recovery. He can’t talk to us like Fuckhead did, in other words, even if he’s a Fuckhead-type guy, because Fuckhead had that uncanny distance from his own life. Of group therapy, Mark Cassandra says, “It’s basically a circle of terrified bullshitters kissing this guy’s ass named Jerry.” The genius in the sentence is that loose, colloquial construction, “kissing this guy’s ass named Jerry.” The bullshitting is the fiction, but Mark Cassandra is failing at it. He can’t even get through a whole cigarette without “thinking crazy.” “I know I don’t know what’s good for me,” he says, in perfect counterpoint to Fuckhead’s capacity to poetize and reflect. That Johnson returned here to a rehab scene must be acknowledged as a clue, perhaps that he was determined to add to what he’d done before, to get something right, or to get it from a different vantage, like his reread, that night at the Dia, of the poem “Traveling,” but this time, to use memory, and the restraint of later-life maturity, to produce a raw immediacy. The character Mark Cassandra is not Fuckhead and neither is he Denis Johnson. Or maybe he is, but without the long view. He’s a person in a moment, damaged, addled, and afraid. He’s wearing secondhand running shoes and vowing to himself that he’s going “to change or die trying.”

In another story, “Strangler Bob,” we reencounter Dundun, a secondary character from Jesus’ Son, but at a younger age, and through the eyes of a Fuckhead-like character who this time is called “Dink.” This is the prequel, the primal scene, where a sinister jail-mate known as Strangler Bob announces the fate of Dink, Dundun, and a guy named BD. They will all three end up murderers, Strangler Bob predicts, in a scene that echoes, strikingly, a moment in Johnson’s novel Tree of Smoke, when an admiral rolls down the window of his white Ford Galaxie and warns Bill Houston and the unsavory company he’s scavenged while on shore leave in Honolulu, “Hard times are coming for assholes like you.”

Hard times indeed come for Bill Houston. The first-person narrator of “Strangler Bob” also bears out the ominous prediction that he will kill, even if he does so inadvertently. He picks up some version of terminal sauce, an unnamed disease (probably hepatitis C), which, he presumes, he has shared with innumerable strangers by selling his blood to buy wine. The emphasis, devastatingly, is not on the narrator, suddenly, but on his impact on other people, and on the question of judgment, a final one.

That’s one of the heavier moments. Other stories are infused with a kind of deep-core comedy, a layer of humor inside narratives of doubles, doppelgängers, death, and the question of life after death. The first story, which shares the book’s title, is a series of views on life from the perspective of an adman approaching the end of his career, but they mostly involve death. In one scenelet, called “Casanova,” the adman encounters someone he takes to be an old colleague but is actually that colleague’s look-alike son, who tells the narrator his father is dead. They speak staring at each other in a mirror above the sinks in a men’s room (in Trump Tower, of all places). The adman avoids looking down at the other man’s trousers and shoes, not wanting to confirm that the doppelgänger of his dead colleague is the same person who has just passed to him, under the bathroom-stall partition, a square of toilet paper with a lewd proposition. In another scene, the adman reflects on an eccentric artist he barely knew who killed himself. He gets a call from an ex-wife with a terminal illness, who wants to repair relations and say goodbye, but he’s not sure which ex-wife it is, Ginny, or Jenny. A friend tells him about meeting the wife of a man executed by the state. But the pieces don’t reek of death, even if I might be giving that impression. Instead, they circle death with care and with an earned levity.

The final story, “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” features several enfolded plots that ripple outward in beguiling and concentric patterns. One is about a writer and his former student, Marcus Ahearn. Another is about a husband and wife who enjoy erotic visitations from the ghost of Elvis Presley. The former student, Ahearn, is obsessed with Elvis and his stillborn twin, who, perhaps by some shady miracle, didn’t die at birth but was stolen by a midwife, lived, and was later swapped in by Elvis’s manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, when Elvis was drafted into the military in 1958. This theory would account for the dramatic transformation of Elvis from young sex god to flabby and self-destructive cipher. The idea is that maybe the two phases we know of Elvis’s were so extremely different because they were lived by different people: brothers who shared the womb. We learn that Ahearn’s older brother, a collector of Elvis records, had been, like Elvis, the sole survivor of a pair of twins—a fact that allows Ahearn, in a bout of fevered logic, to suggest that his teacher, the story’s narrator, is his own older brother’s lost, possibly undead identical sibling. Denis Johnson riffs gamefully with all this, but he is playing for keeps. It seems reasonable to guess that he knew he was at the end of his life when he wrote this story. Knew he would soon be leaving the building, but would ponder, first, the possibility that another king, of another genre, had managed to disappear behind an everlasting mystery, itself a form of spirited and eternal life. As Ahearn writes, to the narrator, “Life after death, ghosts, Paradise, eternity—of course, we take all that as granted. Otherwise where’s the fun?

Rachel Kushner’s new novel, The Mars Room, will be published by Scribner in May.