Denis Johnson, in all his work, aimed to locate the hidden, actual face of things. But the new stories build without those miraculous balls of hail, and their truths are necessarily deeper, and more precise, true as you would true a wheel … It feels like the paced vision of a writer who has been made to understand that life is fairly rude and somewhat short, but that the world contains an uneven distribution of grace, and that wisdom lies in recognizing where it—such grace—has presented itself. The stories are about death and immortality, art and its reach, and they ask elemental questions about fiction, not as a literary genre but as a human tendency … These stories ask you to step into the room and listen closely. They are not showy anthems, and in many cases, they have dispensed with hindsight altogether.
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.
...five stories, most of them longer than thirty pages, that span a range of characters and situations, yet are unified by the aspect of Johnson’s work that towers over the rest: his voice. My god, that voice. Johnson somehow manages to be both conversational and poetic, simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious ... Like any Denis Johnson work, each page of this collection is peppered with one or two tremendous lines that reach out to grab your heart ... Johnson has an astonishing power to turn from one emotion to another in a line or two. His transitions between stories, sections, and paragraphs are worth the study of every aspiring fiction writer ... The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is yet another terrific book of heart, humanity, and humor. Read and treasure it. It is a final gift from a master.
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.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden picks up, to a large extent, where Jesus’ Son left off. Only a few characters recur, but these are essentially the same unlucky bipeds, sometimes glimpsed a few decades later. Their friends are dying and their own bodies have begun to betray them ... The stories in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden are not as cohesive or as plangent as those in Jesus’ Son. This is a lesser book, but only in the sense that the best later Sinatra records were lesser than In the Wee Small Hours, or that Neil Young could not in later decades recapture the mood of After the Gold Rush or Tonight’s the Night. These stories drift, but Johnson finesses his way through them, his prose vernacular and elevated at the same time. One can say about this book what one narrator says about the poems of a writer he loves: 'They were the real thing, line after line of the real thing.'”
In Johnson’s sticky-as-Velcro prose, The Largesse Of The Sea Maiden ruminates on mortality and what a life might yield. 'Certain odd moments' and bizarre repetitions occur with startling frequency in these five stories ... This collection is not that of an old man wishing he’d done something different. Instead these characters accept their messy existences while scrambling for grace, frequently struck by just how goddamned wild and weird life can be ... This strange sense of interconnectedness is aided and abetted by the structure of these narratives. Reflecting the associative nature of memory, the stories bend and wind, collecting more and more repetitions along the way. Some pieces circle their subjects more tightly, while others wander seemingly off-course before their endings make clear what Johnson has been up to the whole time ... 'Triumph Over The Grave' also underscores what a gift Largesse is, as the book puts forth Johnson’s thoughts on mortality—candid and plaintive and often terribly funny—so close to his own death. There’s a kind of uncanny magic at play here. In this his final work, he expands beyond the familiar while still giving us the writer we’ve always known; he allows, once again, the visceral pleasure of his strange, chewy language.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, the last work Johnson completed, makes a fitting bookend to a celebrated career, as well as a surprising counterpoint to Jesus’ Son … The resulting batch of new stories may be less stylish, less brilliant, but they deal in more profound themes. They’re the work of a writer steeped in the mysteries of the world, who sees the Grim Reaper approaching (Johnson all but explicitly invokes his own death in one story) and has nothing left to prove, but much strange insight to impart … The Largesse of the Sea Maiden seem to see, as Wallace Stevens put it, ‘Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’ Perhaps this point-of-view comes from proximity to death. Certainly with that comes self-consciousness, and The Largesse of the Sea Maiden has a reflexive dimension that Jesus’ Son lacks.
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! ... 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.
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.
Johnson’s stories tread a crooked path through illness, addiction, criminality, mania and simple existential confusion. His gift is to extract the beauty in all that brokenness, like the painters who pulled holy light out of the wounds of martyrs … Though these are longer, fuller, rangier stories than the strobing fever dreams of Jesus’ Son, they possess the same incredible emotional density. They feel squeezed, to borrow Johnson’s phrase, ‘in the almighty grip of the truth’ … Grace and oblivion are inextricably yoked in these transcendent stories, the testament of a writer who lived and worked on unusually close terms with death, until that great mystery finally stole him.
'Strangler Bob' is a prison story with a colorful cast of characters; 'The Starlight on Idaho' is the first-person account of a man trying to escape his addictions and rise up from his sad existence. Neither story is entirely satisfying, though they have their moments. The other three stories, though, are remarkable ... ohnson was also a poet, and he has the poet’s gift for finding the perfect image to encapsulate an idea or experience, what T.S. Eliot called the objective correlative ... Although his characters are often diminished and winnowed by their struggles with life, the narrative voice that describes their travails gives evidence of an imagination that is nearly boundless in its generosity and abundance.
There are narrative patterns between each of the five stories which powerfully unify the book in theme and feeling. Many of them feature protagonists meditating on the people who matter — or mattered, at one point — the most to them in their lives … For Johnson’s characters, art and storytelling provide windows of understanding into human nature; it’s a lovely and timeless sentiment, one that was no doubt shared by the author himself … Here’s an author turning toward the past, conjuring up the ghosts of those he’s loved and lost, writing of wild experiences with affectionate abandon.
Johnson’s stories are that of a depleted and decadent civilization. He observes trains everywhere going off the rails. The joke of the title story, which is composed of many interlinked tales, is that modern life is distinctly lacking in largesse and sea maidens … His stylistic range is certainly wondrous, straddling the starkness of ‘Starlight’ and the hysterical realism of ‘Doppelgänger, Poltergeist’ … Johnson’s stories are pertinent and engaging. They hold up a mirror to society’s dregs and to that extent are flawless.
At times, Largesse can feel like retreading a pilgrimage to familiar lessons: God is funny and cruel and maybe a bit distracted; we can hold the same beliefs yet end up in different places. But it is a vital addition to Johnson’s oeuvre. By making the characters (somewhat) more upstanding here, Johnson collapses the distance readers can put between themselves and the wrongdoing. We too must wonder why these people and not their victims are still around to tell their tales. Johnson told aspiring authors to write as if ink were blood, because it is precious. So are farewells like this.
The second story collection from the late Johnson is a masterpiece of deep humanity and astonishing prose … This book is an instant classic. It's filled with Johnson's unparalleled ability to inject humor, profundity, and beauty—often all three—into the dark and the mundane alike. These characters have been pushed toward the edge; through their searches for meaning or clawing just to hold onto life, Johnson is able to articulate what it means to be alive, and to have hope.
This final collection ranges up and down the class ladder; for Johnson, a sense of mortality and a struggle to make sense of our lives knew no demographic boundaries … Whether it’s a motivation to clean up or (more often) a prompt to think about the past, death is always Topic A for these characters … American literature suffered a serious loss with Johnson's death. These final stories underscore what we'll miss.