Before he died in May of last year, Denis Johnson published ten novels, five books of poetry, five stage plays and screenplays, much reportage, and a single collection of short fiction—a psychedelic novel-in-stories called Jesus’ Son, the book with which Johnson is most often identified. Jesus’ Son’s narrator, who’s only ever called Fuckhead, rambles through a series of junkie tales, with ecstatic highs (angels descend from a movie screen, a flower falls from Andromeda, a naked woman flies above a river…) and miserable lows (friends die, relationships die, bunnies die…), until its moving finale, “Beverly Home,” where Fuckhead, in rehab, learns how to be a person, how to live among other people. Along Fuckhead’s crooked arc from raucous dislocation to the peace of community, desperate western spaces emerge through his endearingly weird voice. He speaks with the nutty freedom of the intoxicated, saying whatever he wants—decorum, precision, and reality itself be damned. It’s no wonder, twenty-five years later, that Jesus’ Son has become a staple of writing workshops across America—its voice is that of a totally free mind, able to say anything. A second collection, 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.
Comparing Johnson’s earlier stories with his later ones may strike one as unfair—the books clearly have different goals—but still, it can usefully illuminate the path of Johnson’s writerly progress. So let’s start with the superficialities: eleven stories make up Jesus’ Son; The Largesse of the Sea Maiden has five (which don’t share a common narrator), although it’s the longer book. All sixteen stories are written in the first person. Like “Beverly Home,” “The Starlight on Idaho” takes its name from a rehab clinic, and Dundun, a character from Jesus’ Son, reappears in “Strangler Bob” as part of a triad of jailhouse companions. But the other three new pieces are narrated by aging bourgeois professionals, dislocated less from society than from their own lives.
More dissimilar than the collections’ subject matter are their styles. Despite the greater length of the new stories, Johnson’s sentences have grown more economical, even prosaic. In Jesus’ Son, Fuckhead warns readers that we, too, might become like Dundun, “if I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain”; to the narrator of “Strangler Bob,” Dundun simply “didn’t possess a complete brain.” Gone are flying woman, flowers from Andromeda, crazy explanations for everything. What’s left is a vast sense of bewilderment.
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.
Originally published in the New Yorker, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” which opens the collection, isn’t a story so much as a series of vignettes, each with its own cryptic title, like “Silences,” “Farewell,” or “Orphan.” The narrator, Bill Whitman, or just Whit, has an aching back, unsteady bowels, and decline on his mind. He says things like, “This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life—the distance I’ve travelled from my own youth, the persistence of old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms—that I almost crashed the car.” Most of the vignettes consist of anecdotes he tells about the people in his life and their losses, which have become his losses.
All of Johnson’s stories meander; “Largesse” opens mid-meander. Two friends of Whit’s, one of whom lost a foot in Kabul, meet at a dinner party; at a different dinner party, another friend tosses a painting in the fireplace. None of these people are mentioned again. Later, yet another friend tells Whit about a play he wants to write where he sleeps with the wife of a condemned prisoner, a choice he could have made in real life, but didn’t. Still another friend, Tony Fido, a religious painter, kills himself, and at the memorial, Whit learns he was Tony’s best friend. In a New York City bathroom, he sees one more old friend, or thinks he does—it’s the old friend’s son, who informs Whit that his father’s dead. And when Whit’s ex-wife calls, she tells him she’s dying, but he’s not sure which of his ex-wives she is. “I note that I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future,” Whit says. “I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn’t mind forgetting a lot more of it.” If a Jesus’ Son fan picks up The Largesse of the Sea Maiden looking for more of the same, this haunting story will thwart that expectation, both in its cobbled form and morose content.
But the next two stories share some of Jesus’ Son’s DNA. The narrator of “The Starlight on Idaho” sounds like he could be Fuckhead’s brother. He writes letters to his relatives, his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, his schoolboy crushes, other residents, his doctor, the Pope, and Satan. The narrator’s voice harks back to the lyricism of Johnson’s earlier stories, not to mention the themes they share: the narrator’s fight to get clean becomes a fight to save his own soul. This grimy religiosity is more in keeping with Jesus’ Son, but like every story in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, it is also fixated on death. The narrator believes he can defy it, which scans as more crazy chatter, but isn’t belief in eternal life the crux of Christianity?
“Strangler Bob” gets its title from its narrator’s cellmate, who tells the narrator and two of his friends that God told him they’ll all be murderers one day. The narrator says his friends are “wayward angels”; later, they’re “angels of the God I snickered at.” These people only bring pain and misery to the narrator, their victims, and each other, so they must be proof of God. This is a very Jesus’ Son-esque insight, but there’s a marked contrast here, too. Dundun, two-and-a-half decades after his first appearance (though he’s stayed about the same age) receives a far less sympathetic treatment. He may be an angel, but he’s also “idiotic”; his “mental space” is “customarily empty.” By contrast, in Jesus’ Son, Fuckhead asked, “Would you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart?” You can’t expect that much leeway in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, the plainer prosody of which masks a bleaker view of the world.
Less brilliant, more profound. That’s how another unnamed narrator, the one who frames Marlowe’s story in Heart of Darkness describes the fall of night on the Thames. Joseph Conrad is a writer with whom Denis Johnson is often compared—surprising, if you’ve only read his short stories. Not so if you read his novels, especially Tree of Smoke or The Laughing Monsters. They are as different from the story collections as the story collections are from each other. And they stand apart from Fiskadoro, Johnson’s foray into speculative fiction, and his novellas of lonely, dislocated men, Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Train Dreams. Not to mention the poetry and journalism, or his breakout novel, Angels. There’s a whole universe of dispossessed souls in Denis Johnson’s work, and to contend exclusively with his short stories merely scratches its surface. Still, in Johnson’s whole protean oeuvre, more than any pair of books, Jesus’ Son and The Largesse of the Sea Maiden are like binary stars, locked in orbit, distinct but inseparable, each throwing its light upon the other.
People die in Jesus’ Son, most of them on accident; in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, they’re murdered, they hang themselves, their corpses are exhumed by mad poets. If Jesus’ Son dazzles with the mind-expanding perceptions it draws from the world, 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.
Its final two entries—the best in the collection—are, like the title story, told by aging, melancholy, bicoastal, discursive, death-fixated men. These narrators teach creative writing, Johnson’s occupation, and in “Triumph Over the Grave,” the unnamed first-person narrator mentions he’s teaching a workshop at the University of Texas, where Johnson also worked. “Triumph Over the Grave” has the sad, rambling quality of “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” touching on the deaths of friends, acquaintances, and the narrator’s own physical ailments, but “Triumph” also has the style of a writer’s notebook, which lends the story a cohesion “Largesse” cannot or will not find, as well as establishing that aforementioned reflexive mode. “Writing. It’s easy work,” the narrator says. “Bouts of poverty come along, anxiety, shocking debt, but nothing lasts forever… Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light.” In the story’s final lines, the narrator’s all-but-explicit evocation of his author takes a startling, haunting turn.
“Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” Johnson’s longest short story, is less meandering than the rest of the collection yet remains just as fixated on death, in its way. It’s about another writing professor (a poet and Elvis fan named Kevin Harrington) and his friendship with a student (a better poet and a bigger Elvis fan). The student, Mark, thinks the Elvis who enlisted in the army was killed, and the “quisling Elvis” who returned home in his stead was really Elvis’s twin, Jesse, “falsely believed to have been stillborn.” Mark and Kevin’s pursuit of the truth about Elvis is a sillier and more original version of the same implicit questions that dogged the rest of the narrators in this collection. They seem to move along the perimeter of a great, but potentially empty mystery. In the other four stories, Johnson seems content to circle the emptiness; in “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” Mark digs up a grave to verify its emptiness.
There’s no such emptiness in Jesus’ Son. The world Fuckhead perceives makes sense to him, even if to a sober reader, it’s patently insane. Johnson’s depiction of 9/11 in “Doppelganger, Poltergeist” takes the opposite tack. It’s crystal-clear, but deeply insensible:
I saw only one tower standing in the south, and that one ringed with fire. I asked a man nearby—“Where are we? I can’t see the other tower.” He said, “It fell,” and I said, “No, it didn’t.” He didn’t argue… I saw shocked laughter, weeping, horror, bewilderment. The young man next to me bawled at the top of his lungs. I was afraid to ask him if he had a loved one in the buildings—afraid to talk to him at all, but he raised his agonized, Christly face to me and suddenly laughed, saying, “Buddy, you are working on one heck of a black eye.”
The destruction of the Twin Towers is the only world-historical event to intrude into any of Johnson’s short stories, but Johnson isn’t interested in probing the disaster for any sweeping meanings. There’s no desire for a deeper narrative; Johnson’s focus on the immediate experience of the disruption and the inexplicability of perceiving such an event, free of context or commentary, speaks volumes.
But, although it doesn’t bring a story arc to a close the way Jesus’ Son does, at the end of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Johnson does reach something close to a conclusion: “You love Elvis,” Mark tells Kevin, “That’s a true thing I know.” They haven’t quite made sense of the world, but like Fuckhead, they have learned to live in it.