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‘The Largesse of the Sea Maiden’ sublime and ridiculous

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The best short fiction embraces the limitations of the form and turns them into foundational strengths. There’s a power in brevity that many writers can never fully harness, their work coming off as either overwritten or clumsily truncated.

But when someone displays a true mastery, literary brilliance often follows.

And so it is with “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” (Random House, $27), a quintet of stories from the late Denis Johnson that explore the writer’s longstanding fascination with the freaks and fakes that exist on the fringes of society. Each one of these five tales can be held up as a masterpiece and a masterclass, powerfully evocative and poetically emotive even as the unsavory seediness and/or deliberate disconnect displayed by the characters bubbles and oozes to the surface.

The collection kicks off with the titular story. It’s a series of memories, fragments of a life lived almost in absentia. An adman by the name of Bill Whitman is floating through the world, dispassionately observing his surroundings with a keen, yet ultimately distant eye. Snippets of description – about the animated ad for which he won an award or the dinner party in which a former soldier’s scars become an unexpected focus – flash by, tied together by connective tissue thin and thoughtful.

“The Starlight on Idaho” is an epistolary piece, unfolding in a series of letters written by the protagonist, a recovering addict who has taken up residence in the titular structure, a former motel that has been converted into a rehabilitation center. He writes to old friends, to family, to his sponsor and even to some higher (and lower) spiritual powers – all in an effort to truly get better. What glimpses of the past we get seem to indicate that he wasn’t always sincere in his recovery pursuits, but he’s ready know – even if he does still have plenty of doubts.

Next is “Strangler Bob,” a weird and hallucinatory journey through a small county lockup in 1967. A young man is sentenced to six weeks for stealing a car and crashing it into a utility pole. His roommate is the Bob of the title, locked up and awaiting sentencing for deeds far darker than a mere joyride. We also meet some of the other lost souls within the walls and watch the rhymeless, reasonless wanderings that they undertake as they simply try to get by.

“Triumph Over the Grave” revolves around another favorite type of Johnson’s – the middle-aged writer whose degree of success is difficult to define. This writer’s story revolves around his interactions with friends whose deaths are looming and his struggles to give them what they need from him while grappling with his own misgivings about what lies ahead.

Finally, we have “Doppelganger, Poltergeist,” another writer-centric tale in which a once-aspiring poet (now resigned to the “those who can’t, teach” side of that chestnut of an aphoristic equation) becomes wrapped up in the unhinged orbit of a talented, Elvis-obsessed writer. What follows is a deep dive into the myriad ways that loss and grief can open doors that lead in unwanted directions, down paths where misery and anger and lunatic conspiracy abound.

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is a short book, but not a short read. Johnson is a master of quality over quantity, crafting exquisite sentences that capture feelings with poetic precision. His prose demands savoring; one can find oneself turning these turns of phrase over and over, re-reading and re-experiencing the words as they evoke a dirty beauty rendered all the more stunning by their grit. The language builds in the brain and haunts the heart, mining the mire for a sense of the sublime.

A rehab is described as “a salvage yard for people who totaled their souls.” A writer’s welcome resignation upon examining another’s work is evoked: “They were the real thing, line after line of the real thing, and as I held them in my hands a secret anguish relaxed its grip on my heart, and I accepted I’d never be a poet, only a teacher of poets.” Questions posed to the reader, wondering “if you’re like me, if you collect and squirrel away certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you.”

The stories are exquisite.

There are plenty of people out there who consider Denis Johnson to be one of the finest writers of his generation. His National Book Award and pair of Pulitzer Prize nominations certainly don’t hurt his case. “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is the last such collection we’re going to get from this seminal talent, a brilliant and idiosyncratic crawl along society’s underbelly, a place of duty and desperation where sadness and strength aren’t mutually exclusive. A remarkable work and a fitting goodbye from a literary great.

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