The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
The late Denis Johnson is arguably the most influential American prose writer of the last thirty years, or, at the very least, the most cultishly hallowed writer, and in the posthumously published The Largess of the Sea Maiden it is blindingly clear why.
A slim book of five stories, each routinely demonstrates the harsh glory of Johnson’s words and underbelly worlds. The prose is as brawny and beautiful as one would expect, and streaked with the blackest humour and twisting gotcha revelations – who else could write, ‘We charcoaled a couple of T-bone steaks and drank … then I sort of killed her a little bit’? But what makes this a remarkably special book is not only its summation of a wicked talent but how these stories explore the question of death.
From the episodic title story through to the mystery of Elvis’ long assumed dead twin brother in ‘Doppelganger, Poltergeist’, the collection is fascinated with mortality. That’s not to say it’s a forlorn read, but rather, the book is quietly triumphant. The narrators here face death and the regrets of ageing with humour and unorthodox wisdom.
It is a sad book, undoubtedly, but it is a comforting sadness, like that of Christmas decorations on St. Stephen’s Day, lingering after the main event. With his final collection, Johnson has given us a most precious parting gift and we should open it greedily.
Words – John Patrick McHugh