He led a certain life and found ways of giving expression to that life, with varying degrees of imaginative embellishment. After a while, that too – the expressing, the inventing – became parts of the life which were, in turn, folded into the mix, so he wrote about being a writer, though this writer both was and was not the author of the book you’re now reading about … The secret of all this is the shifting wattage, the slipshod magnificence and crazy wonder of the Johnsonian sentence. Clause by clause, word by word, anything becomes plausible. Control is achieved through willing proximity to its loss. It seems he’s ‘just filling a notebook with jazz,’ but then these directionless improvisations acquire the weight of stories.
Like those direct addresses to his future readers that Whitman scatters throughout Leaves of Grass, Johnson, in these stories, anticipates talking across the abyss that separates the quick from the dead … Most of these stories are terrific, and two — the first and the last — are out-of-this-world … The Largesse of The Sea Maiden contains the kind of work every writer would like to go out on: fresh, profound and singular. It affirms literature's promise to believers, the gift of eternal voice.
Now there is a 20th and last book, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,which Johnson finished just before his death. It collects five short stories, all of them death-haunted … The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is only Johnson’s second collection of stories, but it’s further proof that the form was his natural mode … The Largesse of the Sea Maiden splits neatly into halves, of young men and older men and their reckonings with death: the addict’s brushes with death, murders intentional and accidental committed by convicts, deaths of friends, stillborns, the ashes of 9/11.