THE LARGESSE OF THE SEA MAIDEN, by Denis Johnson. Random House, 207 pp., $27.
Countering the trend of posthumous books that never should have been published, Denis Johnson’s story collection “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” was clearly meant to be his final word to readers. (Johnson died of liver cancer last May; he was 67.) It’s the equal of and direct successor to his finest work, which most would agree are the stories in “Jesus’ Son” (1992), although it was his novel “Tree of Smoke” (2007) that won the National Book Award.
Each of the five stories in “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is in one way or another about wrapping up a life; the plots are littered with dying people, corpses, ghosts and commentary on mortality. Two of the stories feature characters like those in “Jesus’ Son”: lovable, amusing addicts, criminals and losers. “Strangler Bob,” set in prison, brings back one of the characters from that book — the good-hearted teenage murderer Dundun, who is again causing much more trouble than he means to. “The Starlight on Idaho” is a series of letters written by one Mark Cassandra from his room in a motel that has been converted to a rehab facility. “Dear Jennifer Johnson,” begins the first letter. “Well, to catch you up on things, the last four years have really kicked my ass. I try to get back to that point I was at in fifth grade where you sent me a note with a heart on it said ‘Dear Mark I really like you.’ ” From there, it’s “Dear Old Dad and Dear Grandma,” “Dear Pope John Paul,” “Dear Satan,” “Dear Rolling Stone and TV Guide” — all of them absurd, wonderful and unexpectedly moving.
The other three stories in the collection are about older characters, all writers. Bill Whitman, the 62-year-old narrator of “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” is an advertising copywriter. “My name would mean nothing to you, but there’s a very good chance you’re familiar with my work,” he explains. Now married to a fine woman named Elaine, he’s been wed twice before; in one of the funniest sections of the story, his first wife calls him from her deathbed to forgive him for all the terrible things he did to her. Part way through the conversation, he frantically begins to wonder if this is actually his first wife, Ginny, or his second, Jenny, who was a victim of the same set of crimes.
“Triumph Over the Grave” is a set of nested stories about dying people, most of them writers, mostly set at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. Like Johnson himself, the protagonist has been a visiting professor there a couple of times. Writing is pretty easy work, he explains: “The equipment isn’t expensive and you can pursue this occupation anywhere. You make your own hours, mess around the house in your pajamas, listening to jazz recordings and sipping coffee while another day makes its escape. . . . Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light.” The thing that was happening to Johnson, the thing that is cast in a light here, is death itself; in its last lines, the story becomes the author’s own triumph over the grave.
“Doppelgänger, Poltergeist” is the finale of the collection and man, is it crazy. Here the narrator is a former writing professor at Columbia, and one of his students is a great poet, a stunningly gifted writer who goes on to have an important career. But the poet is also a man obsessed with Elvis Presley. His theory is that Elvis’ twin — there really was a stillborn twin — was not born dead but stolen and raised by the midwife, and that he was substituted for the real Elvis at a certain point. That’s where it starts, anyway. Johnson once described the writing process like this: “You get in your teacup and take your oar and strike off for Australia, and if you wind up in Japan, you’re ecstatic.” By the time “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist” gets to the events of 9/11, you will know you are in Japan.
With “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” Johnson found the perfect note to go out on — an instant classic.