Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson
Random House, 2018
Genre: Short Story
I think I am in the minority on this one, folks. Denis Johnson’s collection of short stories, Largesse of the Sea Maiden, received rave reviews and accolades. Don’t get me wrong — it is definitely good. But it did not captivate me in the way that his 2011 novella, Train Dreams, did. Perhaps my expectations were too high. He wrote it as he was dying from liver cancer and it was published posthumously this past January. Because he already has a cult following, his fans were eager to get their hands on it and interpret the meaning of every last word. I believe the bulk of the reading population, and most certainly his fans, found the collection raw and engaging. But I’ll be honest — it just didn’t grab me. Despite its brevity (five short stories covering 200 pages), it took me awhile to plow through. I just didn’t find it compelling enough to propel me toward the finish line.
Because it represented Johnson’s last words to us, I really wanted to love it. Denis is dark on a good day (let alone as he faces his own mortality), and l tend to gravitate to dark, bleak stories. So I expected to be like everyone else that eagerly sang its praises. Sigh. Sorry Denis — I feel like I have failed you, but it just didn’t come together for me.
Yes, there are common themes of lost time, mortality and redemption. Yes, the characters are authentic in a way that only Johnson can create. Yes, drug addicts, convicts and Elvis-obsessed poets grace the pages, typical of most of his work. Yes, it has the trademark Denis Johnson dark humor in the form of drug addicts writing letters to Satan. Yes, it is even prophetic in some places, such as when the narrator in “Triumph over the Grave” tells us, “It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead, but may be by the time you read it.”
All of these individual components would predict another Johnson winner for me. And yet I am left flat in a way that I can not even begin to explain. The characters didn’t captivate me. The stories didn’t pull me under. But because I am such a fan of his in general, I encourage you to read it and prove me wrong. Tell me all the reasons I should love it. Maybe I just had a bad week and one day I’ll pick it up again and fall in love with it, as I had hoped to do.
Because I hate to end on a sour note, I do want to emphasize that there are little nuggets to be found in each of the stories. Such as when the incarcerated narrator in “Starlight in Idaho” states, “I’m writing letters to each one of you lucky winners who has a hook in my heart. Every time your heart beats I can feel a little jerk, just a little something. Whether you like it or not, that’s love.”
Wherever you are, Denis Johnson, I hope that every time someone picks up one of your books, you feel a little jerk. Regardless of whether or not we like it, that’s love…… for all contributions you have made to the writing/reading community throughout the years. You will be missed.
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2 thoughts on “Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson”
That is a nice review. It must be difficult to review something that did not meet your expectations yet has incredible merit. Your encouraging others to check it out for themselves is the perspective I appreciate. Thank you.
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Thanks for your feedback. Maybe you’ll read it sometime and tell me what I’m missing. 😬