The last book of any author is a testament to their talent. Some, like F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, are unfinished, unsatisfying and taken from them before they were done. Others, such as George Orwell’s 1984, are the culmination of a life’s work and perhaps unsatisfying because readers wonder what might have been with a few more years.
It’s impossible to read Denis Johnson’s The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, his last collection of short fiction, without resonances of his death from liver cancer. Johnson’s breakout was a 1992 collection of short stories, Jesus’ Son, that became a well-regarded film. He wrote several other books including a politicised travel memoir Seek: Reports from the Edges of America and Beyond before the acclaim of the 2007 novel Tree of Smoke which scored the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer. With this final collection, Johnson’s decline in health and death at his home in California last year soaks through each story.
The strongest echoes are heard in “Triumph Over the Grave”, rambling between several last moments which seem barely fictionalised. It opens with ‘Right now I’m eating bacon and eggs in a large restaurant in San Francisco.’ This is familiar Johnson in media. We slip into a story of a narrator comforting another dying author, the spectacularly shabby Darcy Miller, almost to his dying day. It goes from this distant death to one that creeps closer with the loss of the narrator’s friend, Link.
Because these are American short stories – expansive as Texas, with word counts over 5,000 – we get whole lives contained in each. “Strangler Bob” might have been a slight prison sketch, but in the roomier format the story soaks through into their lives, their ends and how their blood flows into the lives of others.
A strong take on what life is worth are the 10 vignettes that make up the title story. It opens the collection with a jumpiness: diary entries of an ad exec who’d rather dawdle in art galleries than collect his awards — a weighing up of a life closer to its conclusion than the beginning.
The final piece “Doppelganger Poltergeist” pokes at America’s overfed underbelly with the Elvis-obsessed poet Marcus Ahearn who gets tangled in trouble and September 11. Johnson (who published four collections of poetry) draws the rambling story together with: ‘Twin Towers, twin Presleys, twin Ahearns. The pairings of these pairings must have beaten on his [Ahearn’s] thoughts with considerable intensity. It hadn’t even occurred to me.’
In the story’s great acreage there’s a male friendship – sometimes distant and unknown to each other, sometimes closer than siblings – that redeems even the schmaltz of a fatted prodigal King. Johnson had this ability to sift stars from trash.
Johnson represents a kind of Anglo writing that is easily dismissed as ‘male, pale and stale’ especially in a United States that seems far from the Land of the Free. But by holding death up to the light, turning it through various angles, he reflects the universal. Rather than fearing the reaper, Johnson uses his last published words to savour that ‘right now’, that being dropped in the moment. He closes a coffin in “Triumph Over the Grave” with ‘It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.’
Between the ink hitting the page and publication, the lights have gone out — then we hear in that darkness Johnson’s voice telling us the world should be better.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is available in hardback, in paperback January 2019, from Penguin Random House.
Reviewer George Dunford is a writer and digital strategist living in Canberra. He has written for Meanjin, Australian Book Review, Lonely Planet, The Big Issue among others.