In the title story of “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” by Denis Johnson, an aging ad man struggles with his own relevance: “I note that I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to. Memory fades, not much of the past stays, and I wouldn’t mind forgetting a lot more of it.”
Bill Whitman is taking stock of his life — collecting the small and great moments that his memory can conjure, as if preparing to account for himself. He’s not a perfect man, by far, but the reader cannot help but succumb to his humor and charm.
It’s hard not to see parallels between Denis Johnson and his characters, especially as regards their age and time left alive. Johnson was diagnosed with liver cancer in late 2015, and passed away last May at age 67, an enormous loss for American literature. His own mortality must have been present in his thoughts as he shaped the collection, and it’s impossible not to read into some of his lines without evoking his own passing.
In “Triumph Over the Grave,” the narrator, a writer dealing with a dying colleague, notes that “the world keeps turning. It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.” The prose is haunting. But that’s always been Johnson’s style.
The men whose stories shape “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” recall FH, the profanely-named narrator of Johnson’s 1992 story collection, “Jesus’ Son,” — a Kerouac-esque anti-hero obsessed with drugs, violence, trains, women and desire — but without FH’s guilelessness of youth.
Johnson’s new narrators have unreliable bodies (with unreliable digestive tracts), unreliable memories, unreliable spouses and unreliable friends. Even death is unreliable, as poorly timed as it is inevitable.
Johnson’s men are alcoholics and junkies (former, in recovery, struggling to change or in denial) facing off against larger institutions like rehab, psych wards, jails, hospitals and Graceland. (In “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” a poet joins a former student in a conspiracy theory about Elvis being replaced mid-career by his long-thought-dead twin brother.) Time doesn’t exist — stories move forward and back through entire lifetimes — yet, the theme of lost time echoes heavily throughout the book.
The narrator of “The Starlight on Idaho,” Cass, wonders if he’s even alive at all. “Why do I think I might be Jesus Christ and I’m supposed to come here and suffer, really suffer, and why do I think everybody’s looking at me because they know this about me?” But what we really know about these men is that they are the architects of their own demise — as each struggles with a dilemma of his own making, though, it’s easy to dismiss accountability. The stories aren’t moralizing; Johnson is creating raw portraits of deeply flawed men.
As in “Jesus’ Son,” Johnson’s men are also sexist and racist, living in the male Baby Boomer fantasy of scrappy and oblivious dudes against the world. Women exist as accessories, the world seems to be universally white and Johnson’s narrators seem uncomfortable with anything that isn’t heteronormative. The argument can be made, of course, that these are the worlds his characters inhabit, but in 2018, it’s a bit more difficult to imagine a landscape without some attempt at diversity. Then again, lately we’ve all been facing off against our racist, sexist, homophobic relatives at family dinner. And no rude uncle will ever be as charming, talented and funny as Denis Johnson.
There is a danger to this, of course — to venerating the type of man that Johnson evokes. But the reader can take comfort in knowing that none of these men seem happy, fulfilled or even healthy for that matter. Perhaps Johnson makes a poetic argument regarding the tragedy that is toxic masculinity, that the type of man who can only talk about the disposability of wives and whores doesn’t get too far too well.
In two stories (“The Largess of the Sea Maiden” and “The Starlight on Idaho”), women reveal sordid past lives as sex workers — one lying to her husband, the other lying to her therapy group. Johnson’s narrators seem more concerned about the attractiveness of the women than about their individual experiences. What matters about these women is how they affect the men. Again, that can be explained away by understanding Johnson in context, but that context simply isn’t the context of our present. In other words, his narrators should have been a bit more woke, but perhaps the point is that they never would be or really could be.
Yet even when his stories are problematic, Johnson’s sentences carry great weight and beauty. The poet’s ear is still there, sharp and poignant as ever. In “Strangler Bob,” Dink, the jailed narrator, considers the county jail an “intersection for souls,” noting that “it makes me feel each person’s universe is really very small, no bigger than a county jail, a collection of cells in which he encounters the same fellow prisoners over and over … they may have been not human beings, but wayward angels.”
In Johnson’s world, we all have a shot at redemption, or at least hope of such a thing. Cass, from “The Starlight on Idaho,” has been to rehab several times. But this time, he sincerely thinks, it will take. The story is structured on letters he writes, to his family, to God, to Satan, to the Pope but mostly to himself. The ending of “Starlight” is spectacular, the kind of ending that leaves the reader breathless, eager to read the final paragraph again slowly. And while redemption may or may not be in the cards for such a man, the fact that he believes in his own redemption is enough.
Johnson’s posthumous collection reflects his sensibilities but with a struggle to make sense of life. There’s no more time to waste in meaningless bars, having meaningless conversations, yet in some ways, there was no time to waste doing anything else. Being alive is enough until it’s gone.
Johnson assembled this collection over years, finishing it with the knowledge of his own death. In his final collection, Denis Johnson gives us beautiful, imperfect and wonderfully damaged men. Men who don’t “expect to live in the future,” men haunted by their pasts, men trying to find a place in the present.
Ramírez, one of The Times’ critics at large, is the author of the memoir “Dead Boys”; her book “The Violence” is forthcoming from Scribner
Random House: 224 pp., $27