The late Denis Johnson, a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer finalist, wrote a bunch of great books in a bunch of different genres — fiction, poetry, drama, essays — all of them exquisite and expansive, beautiful and terrifying. But he secured his place in the American canon with two books that come as close to perfection as a book can.
The more recent is his 2011 novella, “Train Dreams,’’ a spare story about a lonesome man living in the Idaho woods. The writing is so lucid, the sentences so gem-like, that the book seems less created than found, like something elemental and ancient that Johnson happened upon in his wanderings.
The older, and more influential, of Johnson’s perfect books is the 1992 short-story collection “Jesus’s Son.’’ Like “Train Dreams,’’ it’s lean. Unlike “Train Dreams,’’ it’s wildly druggy, rowdily funny. A linked set of stories largely set in bars, abandoned lots, and crappy cars, “Jesus’s Son’’ occasionally gives way to miraculous, even holy beauty: “just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity.”
Johnson died last year, and the posthumously published “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’’ is his first story collection since “Jesus’s Son.’’ Much is familiar here. Again, we encounter characters on the margins, winos and weirdos and men with names like Strangler Bob and Dundun. (Dundun actually appeared in “Jesus’s Son,’’ too.)
The narrator of “The Starlight on Idaho” is a drunk named Cass who bides his time at a rehab facility, fighting off demonic visions and writing letters to those from his past (and to Satan and the pope). Cass is, he declares, “the type to come shooting off the block, get twenty yards ahead of everybody else, and go stumbling and sprawling off onto the sidelines with a collapsed lung”; the type who has been “shot, jailed, declared insane”; the type who, in one of the book’s many “cosmically funny” details, wants “I Should Be Dead” chiseled onto his gravestone.
Cass isn’t the only down-and-outer we encounter. In “Triumph Over the Grave,” a young writer takes LSD before a knee operation and sees, in Johnson’s delightfully paranoiac phrasing, “that the Great Void of Extinction was swallowing the whole of reality at an impossible rate of speed.” In another story, an “eccentric religious painter” —“The only painter I admire,” he says, “is God” — declares, “We live in a catastrophic universe — not a universe of gradualism.”
That’s a perfect distillation of Johnsonian ontology. His universe is riven by dark catastrophe: addiction, disease, violence, death. Most often, it seems that we live in a world where “God has put his feet up and screwed the head off a Bud and has drifted off into a nap while [we] sit here burning and stinking on the barbecue.” But this state of affairs is transfigured, occasionally and beautifully, by the equally catastrophic workings of grace, “when the flow of life twists and untwists, all in a blink — think of a taut ribbon flashing.”
In the collection’s final story, “Doppelganger, Poltergeist,” another narrator, also a writer, chats with a friend in an empty classroom when suddenly everything is illuminated: “I felt liberated by this crazy, silly little scene in the empty auditorium with the Periodic Table to the side. I noticed many elements I’d never heard of — brand new elements, and I felt one myself, flashing forth from the quantum soup, sprung from uncertainty itself.”
That quotation, while resembling other visionary moments in “Jesus’s Son,’’ also shows how different a collection this is. We’re in a college auditorium, not a bar; the narrator is a writer, not a drifter; and “silly” is too kindly a word to appear in that earlier, more ferocious collection.
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! “I wonder if you’re like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you”; “in a storm the redwoods seem to me punished, resigned, while the cypress trees seem out of their minds, throwing their limbs around hysterically.”
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.
THE LARGESSE OF THE SEA MAIDEN
By Denis Johnson
Random House, 207 pp., $27
Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.” se College, SUNY, has a book on poetry and theology forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press.