“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” was Denis Johnson’s first published collection of short stories in 25 years and his last work before he died of liver cancer. I never heard of him despite his receipt of the 2007 National Book Award for Tree of Smoke and having been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
The testimonials on the book jacket included Zadie Smith, Philip Roth, Don Delillo, Louise Erdrich, George Saunders and other accomplished writers who all feel unworthy. The first story, “Silences”, makes such self-deprecating comments understandable. It is a series of interconnected vignettes from a shocking dinner party. There is a discussion about the difference between repentance and regret. “You repent the things you’ve done, and regret the chances you let get away.”
This short story collection is principally about repentance. Mr. Johnson plies the fringe elements of our society for his stories. The fact that he was an alcoholic, addicted to drugs, and spent time in a psyche ward, adds authenticity to his characters.
This is particularly true of the second short story “The Starlight of Idaho”. Cass is in a rehab facility again and he is writing to everyone he knows as part of his rehab. He is looking for salvation this time, but his family are almost all alumni of rehabs and penitentiaries, their mother genetically bequeathing her addictions and frailties to her children.
“Strangler Bob” occurs in a county jail. Three inmates are seeking a way out, but Strangler Bob predicts it will all be for naught as they will end up dead.
Mr. Johnson’s stories are in the first person and are conversational in style. Dialogue is often limited. A few of the stories’ principal characters are writers and poets. “Triumph Over the Grave” and “Doppelganger, Poltergeist” are examples. The former is an end of life tale, but is partly about writing. Essentially, you sit down write and ramble. These two stories are somewhat faithful to this theory. The latter story is about an Elvis theory and was not compelling.
“Tree of Smoke” is a novel that apparently takes place in Vietnam during that era for the U.S.. Mr. Johnson’s father was purportedly a liaison between USAID and the CIA. In essence, he was probably CIA. This may have given a younger Mr. Johnson some insight into the world of foreign intrigue. His body work, limited due to his addictions, however is more aligned with the themes in this last collection of his. The first story, and the title of this collection, is worth reading.