From The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
Reviewing The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, the posthumous story collection by Denis Johnson (who died of liver cancer in May 2017), Michael Schaub identifies what made the author’s writing so singular. “Nobody ever wrote like Denis Johnson. Nobody ever came close. … His stories embraced the dark, but reluctantly; he refused to shy away from the brutal, the violent, and the desperate. He was the last of his breed, and it was a breed of one.”
In a New York Times obituary, Richard Sandomir quotes James McManus as writing that the world of a Johnson story “is a place where attempts at salvation remain provisional and where a teetering narrative architecture uncannily expresses both Christlike and pathological traits of mind.” And Rick Moody, also writing in the NYT, suggests that what makes Johnson’s fiction so potent is “the consciousness of mortality found everywhere in his best work.”
The consciousness of mortality to which Moody pointed is all over the new story collection – the first book of short fiction from the author since what is generally considered his masterpiece, 1992’s linked story cycle Jesus’ Son. Like that book, the new volume focuses on criminals and addicts, the latter something Johnson himself was familiar with on a personal level, having undergone his own struggles with alcoholism and heroin. But the intimations of mortality that crop up in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden are all the more heartbreaking in the knowledge that the author was staring down his own terminal diagnosis while composing many of these stories. “It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead,” states the narrator at the close of one story. “But maybe by the time you read it.” The plaintive title of that story is “Triumph Over the Grave.”
And in “The Starlight on Idaho,” the narrator recalls being repeatedly told that he’s lucky to be alive. “More than once I’ve woke up with some medical professional saying, ‘You should be dead.’ That’s what it’s gonna say on my gravestone – ‘I Should Be Dead.’”
The story’s narrator is Mark Cassandra, who is a resident at the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center on Idaho Avenue in Ukiah (the “Armpit of Northern California”). From his desk in Room 8 of the rehab centre (which used to be the Starlight Motel), Cass pens a series of letters to ex-lovers, family members, doctors, and Satan chronicling his mental state and his struggles to get clean. He has been prescribed Antabuse, which he dislikes because it makes him groggy and puts him into a black mood “and then I can feel my mind, my actual mind, pulling itself in two.” In his delirium he hears the voice of the Devil laughing and “ordering [him] to kill people.”
The letters Cass writes dramatize the conflation of “Christlike and pathological traits of mind” McManus isolated as characteristic in Johnson’s fiction. Cass is under the thrall of his grandmother’s staunch Christianity (one of his letters describes the fuss she created when she visited a group therapy session open to the residents’ family members). “You are surrounded by demons,” she tells him. “God has his hand around your guts and he is dragging you out of Hell.” The demons that plague Cass are the ravages of his addiction, and he equates his earthly suffering with a temporal version of eternal damnation: “Question is, God, where are you? What the fuck on earth do you think you’re doing, man? We are in HELL down here, HELL down here, HELL. You know? Where’s Superman?”
There is such energy to the writing in this story, such propulsion to the spare, jangling prose that feels like it is channeling the hopped up mental agitation of an addict in withdrawal, shot through with an almost Calvinistic fever of anguish at the prospect of sin and despair at the absence of God:
Satan says The gamblers shake the dice, and shake I the gamblers, Snake eyes in Paradise! Satan shouts I run the jamboree, and Hollywood and Vegas, and start all the wars, vampire breather of the baby’s breath, I the worker of the strings to jerk the fools dancing, Glue-huffers, jelly-rollers, paint-suckers, Bikers, truckers, cowboys, teachers, preachers, About a million hipsters on dope, Shaky alkies with their nerves burned up, Hey God where is you you ain’t nowhere, We search for some faint signal from your power … All that just now, right now, while I’m writing it down.
“All that just now, right now, while I’m writing it down.” Reading these words it’s hard not to sense a kind of frenzied mission statement in them, a rushed imperative to get the words out and onto the page at a white heat, while there’s still time. This may be overstating the case, and it is certainly an example of reading in hindsight, with the benefit of knowing how the author’s own battle with time and his demons finally ended.
Nevertheless, it’s hardly possible to see this story – or the other entries in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden – outside this greater context, as the final dispatch from a writer who forged a career addressing with great acuity and empathy the rugged battles of the outcasts, the downtrodden, criminals, addicts, and the spiritually defeated. The writing here reads like the anguished, defiant howl of a ghost: much the same as the experience of listening to David Bowie’s Blackstar in the aftermath of that artist leaving us.
It can be no accident that the narrator’s surname is Cassandra – the figure in Greek mythology cursed to speak the truth and have no one pay heed. Reading Johnson is like being granted access to one of the exceptional truth-tellers in American letters: his voice is simultaneously thrilling, frightening, and almost unbearably poignant. “And that’s all I’ll ever need or want,” Cass writes near the end of “The Starlight on Idaho.” “If you think I’m bullshitting, kiss my ass. My story is the amazing truth.”