The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories
Random House, 224 pp., $27.00
Picture the sibilant music of blood-red sand shifting from one bulbous half of the hourglass to the other. Or black-and-white film footage, bearing a scarred geography of squiggles and motes and hyphens, bleaching a darkened room in a ghostly light. Picture the slow and deliberate turning of calcified pages in a vinyl photo album, which provides evidence of the people you were, the friends you had, the family you loved, and hated and loved again. Any one of these notions, or those of a similar ilk, could serve as the tonal prelude, the lo-fi trailer, to Denis Johnson’s collection of stories, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, completed just before his death.
Johnson, in the charged breadth of five stories, stalks through the boneyard, trafficking in muted nostalgia, curdled sorrow and mortal reckoning. His is the bleary and softly fuzzy world between somnambulism and wakefulness. As always, his lyrical takes on the lonely and broken, on the bits of blue valentine that get caught between our soul’s teeth, are nuanced and spot-on. You could imagine Johnson not only as a derelict urban cowboy spinning yarns round an ashcan fire, but also as a gothic storyteller with a twilight tint, a gallows comedian with flammable sensitivity, Edward Hopper meets Grand Guignol.
The title story, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” opens with a dinner gathering, and the circumambular volleys and repartee between the guests hearkens back to Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When Talk About Love.” The protagonist, an aging ad-man who is prone to fretful wanderings—mentally, emotionally, physically—takes the reader through a frayed tapestry of stories within the story, and early on muses, “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 ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms—that I almost crashed the car.” Johnson’s jazz-haunt-style, his inner-Chet-Baker wheedling notes through haze, makes itself felt in pitch-perfect passages: “A piano playing a Latin tune drew me through a doorway into an atmosphere of sadness: a dim tavern, a stale smell, the piano’s weary melody, and a single customer, an ample, attractive woman with abundant blonde hair. She wore an evening gown. A light shawl covered her shoulders. She seemed poised and self-possessed, though it was possible, also, that she was weeping,” and, “The scene had a moonlit black-and-white quality. Ten feet away at her table the blonde woman waited, her shoulders back, her face raised. She lifted one hand and beckoned me with her fingers. She was weeping. The lines of her tears sparkled on her cheeks. ‘I am a prisoner here,’ she said. I took the chair across from her and watched her cry. I sat upright, one hand on the table’s surface and the other around my drink. I felt the ecstasy of a dancer, but I kept still.”
Addiction and sobriety factor in directly or obliquely to most of the stories (Johnson’s own long-standing sobriety gave his “second act” a new set of wings, or at least a life-raft on which to bob and float), giving rise to a sort of bullet-riddled spirituality, splintered kin to Leonard Cohen’s anthemic cry, “There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”
Johnson is masterful in compressing small histories, and their psychic volume, into a single line or two: “At first I was interested in getting high, I liked to laugh at nothing and get my feet crossed and go down on my ass. Then later it was torture, but it was a button I could push to destroy the known world.” (“The Starlight on Idado”), and, “Dundun, BD and I formed a congress and became the Three Musketeers—no hijinks or swashbuckling, just hour upon hour of pointless conversation, misshapen cigarettes, and lethargy.” (“Strangler Bob.”). These breezy clips play to Johnson’s musical sense of timing, and to an inverse romanticism which has had the shit kicked out of it by Reality, a superior opponent, and the journey from red-flag-living to white-flag-waving, to shedding the skin of outworn modes, reveals itself in hard-won knowing: “… it was a lot like the destiny I’d picture for myself when I was a criminally silly youth: a washed-up writer with books and movies and affairs and divorces behind him and nothing to show for it now, eking out a few last years—drinking, sinking. Of course in my youth it had seemed romantic because it was just a picture. It didn’t have an odor. It didn’t smell like urine and alcoholic vomit. And the way I’d been rushing at it, if I’d continued toward that kind of end it would have come a lot sooner, in my twenties, if I had to guess, preceded by not much.” (“Triumph Over the Grave”).
Writers talking about writing, about their process, or the guiding principles by which they set their compass, is, for me, both a source of fascination and inspiration. Johnson, years ago, laid out three of his “rules”:
- Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.
- Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you could never waste it.
- Write in exile. As if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.
In “Triumph Over the Grave,” the reader is treated to another freewheeling riff on the writer’s life: “Writing. It’s easy work. The equipment isn’t expensive, and you can pursue this occupation anywhere. You make your own hours, mess around the house in your pajamas, listening to jazz records and sipping coffee while another day makes its escape. You don’t have to be high-functioning or even, for the most part, functioning at all. If I could drink liquor without being drunk all the time, I’d certainly drink enough to be drunk half the time, and production wouldn’t suffer. Bouts of poverty come along, anxiety, shocking debt, but nothing lasts forever. I’ve gone from rags to riches and back again, and more than once. Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into 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.”
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, as a swan song, as a final offering, is a beautifully executed testament to Johnson’s distinctive genius. A man who arose from the ash-heap, an angel with a dirty face, pen burning to tell stories, to redeem himself, who wrote nakedly, in blood-ink, as if in exile, forever longing for home.
John Biscello is Book Critic at Riot Material magazine. Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, Mr. Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of two novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale and Raking the Dust, as well as a collection of stories. His latest novel, Nocturne Variations, will be published by Unsolicited Press. To see more of John Biscello’s work, visit johnbiscello.com