Skip to main content

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories


The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories

I will forever associate Denis Johnson with The Velvet Underground, thanks to his short story “Jesus’ Son” and the collection of the same name, which in turn took their titles from a line in The Velvet Underground’s classic song, “Heroin.” Indeed, I listened to the VU canon --- The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground --- repeatedly while reading THE LARGESSE OF THE SEA MAIDEN, a posthumous collection of Johnson’s shorter fiction that he finished shortly before his death in 2017. The contents demonstrate that Johnson, even in his final days, was taking new routes to familiar territories while making virgin explorations into different ones.

THE LARGESSE OF THE SEA MAIDEN is, in all the best ways, longer and deeper than its 200-plus pages might otherwise indicate. This is especially true of the title story that opens the collection. It consists of a series of observations made by an individual in his early 60s --- we don’t learn his name until close to the very end --- who is vaguely unsatisfied with his job at a San Diego advertising agency. His musings, which change topics every couple of pages or so, are more about other people than about himself, but we learn much about the narrator as well, specifically when he returns to New York, where he originally worked, to receive an award for a commercial he had created some years before. The story is worthwhile on several levels, but particularly for the observation contained in its next-to-last paragraph, which will resonate with readers of a certain (advanced) age.

"THE LARGESSE OF THE SEA MAIDEN is a collection to be read over and over again. Johnson’s prose and delivery are spare, telling little but revealing much."

The second story, “The Starlight on Idaho,” finds Johnson back in familiar territory but with a very different presentation. It consists of a series of letters written by “Cass” --- Mark Cassandra --- who is in a substance abuse rehabilitation center housed in what was once a transient hotel. The letters that are meant to be read, rather than sent, are written as part of the treatment. Anyone who has attempted to get a grip on a substance problem, or dealt with someone who has had one, will recognize Cass through his soul-baring epistles addressed to everyone from his mother --- currently nearing the conclusion of her third decade in prison --- and his sponsor to the Devil and the Pope. There is some occasional dark and grim humor sprinkled throughout “The Starlight on Idaho,” but it is tragic in tone. Cass’ odds of success, alas, don’t seem good by the end of the story, but you never know.

Next, we come to “Strangler Bob,” the title being the nickname of one of the characters encountered during the narrator Dink’s incarceration in county lockup. The story is unforgettable, if deceptively simple, even as it seems to function as a reminder to the reader to never, ever perform any action that has the remote possibility of resulting in jail time. Johnson liked to proceed in one direction during a story only to suddenly veer off toward another vaguely related compass point near the end. He does so to great and frightening effect here within the last page or so, with the words and sentences rushing out in an awful and frightening torrent as it describes a life wasted and dangerous.

However, there is no such sudden diversion in “Triumph Over the Grave,” its optimistic title belied by what actually occurs. Johnson was almost obviously contemplating his own imminent demise when he crafted this tale of death witnessed and experienced, but even that knowledge will not prepare you for this story’s last sentence. Reading it is like walking into a dark closet and realizing, a moment too late, that it is actually an elevator shaft. Don’t peek ahead without reading what comes before; it simply will not have the same effect.

The collection concludes with “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” which is perhaps the most whimsical tale of the five, dealing with the most fully realized conspiracy theory concerning the life and death of Elvis Presley that I have encountered to date (and that includes the Jimmy Ellis/Orion mythos). Yet, even here, Johnson manages a dark swerve that makes the story, like the rest of them in this book, unforgettable.

THE LARGESSE OF THE SEA MAIDEN is a collection to be read over and over again. Johnson’s prose and delivery are spare, telling little but revealing much. Is there a favorite story here? Yes. In the words of the punchline of the old vaudeville joke, “All of ’em.” It’s a terrific work with which to end a life and career --- or, indeed, to begin one such.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 25, 2018

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories
by Denis Johnson

  • Publication Date: January 8, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812988655
  • ISBN-13: 9780812988659