Denis Johnson is back, with first published story in years

I’ve been waiting for Denis Johnson to write more short fiction. His 1992 collection “Jesus’ Son,” which gathers 11 linked stories about a recovering drug addict, is one of the signal achievements of contemporary American literature, a book so spare and beautiful and knowing that it makes my eyes weep blood.

Johnson had published only a couple of stories since “Jesus’ Son”; one of the last, “Xmas in Las Vegas,” appeared in Tin House more than a decade ago. In the current issue of the New Yorker, however, he has another: “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” the first-person account of an advertising executive named Bill Whitman, who has come to the realization “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.”

Lest that sound wistful, it is and it isn’t, which is one of the beauties of the story, its quality of displacement, even dérive. In that regard, it’s reminiscent of Johnson’s novella “The Name at the End of the World,” which involves a college professor facing a similar sense of disengagement, although in his case, it’s because he’s lost his family.


Nothing so dramatic motivates “The Largess of the Sea Maiden,” which unfolds in 10 subtitled sections, like a mini-collection all its own. The narrator talks to one of his ex-wives, who is dying, although he can’t quite tell which one. He recalls a friend who once interviewed a man on death row, and another friend, an artist, who took his own life.

He meanders, in loafers and a bathrobe, along the late-night lanes of his suburban neighborhood, and later through the snowy streets of Manhattan until he finds himself drawn “through a doorway into an atmosphere of sadness: a dim tavern. A stale smell, the piano’s weary melody, and a single customer, an ample, attractive woman with abundant blond hair.”

What does it mean? Nothing and everything, which is, of course, the entire point. We are lost in our own lives, Johnson is saying, adrift in a universe where “the Mystery” asserts itself in the most elusive ways, at the least expected moments, and all we can do is pay attention to the nuances, to the echoes, which is what this story does.

“Nothing’s calculated like — calculated,” Johnson tells New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman in an accompanying interview at the magazine’s Page-Turner blog. “It’s accumulated. Then I consider the material, and turn it every possible way over a period of years, and then, one day, it’s over. T. S. Eliot spoke of making ‘quasi-musical decisions.’ That’s how I’d put it, too. Do you know the Billy Strayhorn composition ‘Lush Life’? The way this story unstrings itself reminds me of ‘Lush Life.’”

In the same conversation, Johnson — whose new novel “The Laughing Monsters” is due out in the fall, “if only someone would finish it” — suggests a reason why he writes so few stories, explaining that “The Largess of the Sea Maiden” took him “seven or eight years.”

He continues: “For me, seven years is fast. Most of my pieces have taken 10 to 12 years from the time of the initial impulse to the day I abandon them, and I’ve gone as long as twenty-five years.”


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