Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by Denis Johnson

Hardcover, 207 pgs, Pub Jan 16th 2018 by Random House, ISBN13: 9780812988635

I’d never read any Denis Johnson before this, though of course I knew of his work. I thought I had endless days to finally show my appreciation.

A GR friend describes the eponymous first story as if watching a magician at work. That story is actually a set of very short stories, each so well-conceived and trimmed of fat that worlds are conveyed in a sentence. Perhaps he could have been a lyricist; another GR friend says he was a poet “first and foremost.” Yes.

Both these GR friends cite that first story along with “Triumph Over Grave,” the penultimate story in this collection, as their favorites. So it is with me. These two stories are worth seeking out the collection to read. Probably you will not get a better idea of the art and the man than these.
“What have you been doing with yourself out here?” one character asks another who is naked beneath his open lab coat.
“Thangdoodlin’,” the other man replies. —from “Triumph…”
Johnson knew too much about addiction. It saturates his stories and while in some we get the sense of an understanding compassion for fellow sufferers, at the same time it gives us the claustrophobic I-can’t-breathe quality of hearing the same goddamn story again in its millionth iteration, perhaps even from the same person. Empathy, even sympathy, turns sour over too much time with addicts.
“We alkies are just a tangle of lies like the insides of a golf ball.”
At the same time I want to press this book into the hands of AA & NA attendees to talk about at their choreographed meetings. Surely the vision of someone managing to describe their common symptoms and regrets is restitutive, reflexively imitative. But how would he know these things except to have succumbed more times than can be counted? Some folks manage to escape. We have to hold onto that. Besides, he never asks for more.

Penguin Random House does a magnificent job on the audio of this collection, and provides some Soundcloud clips for stories read by different actors. Below Nick Offerman reading from “Ad Man,” one of the very short stories in “Largesse…”; My favorite voice among all these favorite actors is Michael Shannon reading the first page of “The Starlight on Idaho,” sounding so much like Sam Shepard in voice and subject matter that we remember a time when these men roamed the earth. They meant something to us, addictions or not; Will Patton reads the first pages of “Triumph…”, his voice all shaky and smoky like someone who will never lose the jitters anymore; the first page of “Strangler Bob” read by Dermot Mulroney sounds all brawny and seen-it-all; Liev Schreiber reads the last story in the collection, “Dopplegänger, Poltergeist.”

The Audible edition of the audiobook has all five actors reading one each of five different stories. But be careful with this listen: Denis Johnson’s work is so unflashy that its skill can be easily overlooked when someone reads it aloud just right. The book is small and easy to carry: it allows one to appreciate the shortness of the stories, the way he laid it all out and wrote it down, and what he didn’t say.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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