American outsider: Denis Johnson’s troubled journey to greatness

Denis Johnson’s posthumous The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is not only remarkable as a document of a great writer facing death – it’s remarkable because it is among the best of his books

It is hard, when considering final works by dead artists, to escape the death and get a clear view of the thing itself. Theodor Adorno explored this problem in his 1937 essay, “Late Style in Beethoven”, writing that “late works are relegated to the outer reaches of art, in the vicinity of document”. In other words, they become ensnared in the biographies of their creators, and the fact of death, in the short-term at least, hampers their evaluation.

This phenomenon is complicated in the case of Denis Johnson, who died of liver cancer in May 2017, because The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, his final book, assuming no other scrapings from notebooks or hard drives emerge, comprises five stories preoccupied with death. One of them, “Triumph Over the Grave”, even plays with the imminence of the author’s own, ending with the lines: “It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”

Make no mistake, however: The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is not only remarkable as a document of a great writer facing death. It is remarkable because it is among the best of his books.

Johnson was born in Munich in 1949. His father’s work as a US state department official took the family to Japan, the Philippines and Washington, DC. Johnson gave interviews infrequently, but scraps of his biography can be pieced together from various articles he wrote over the years. Between spells at university, as an undergraduate in Iowa and later, in the early 1970s, as an MFA student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop – where he was taught by Raymond Carver and where he, too, would teach – there were periods of alcoholism, drug addiction and, briefly, homelessness, all of which fed into his writing.

Johnson published poetry first, then novels and short stories. He also wrote plays, and some film and TV scripts that mostly remained unmade. From the 1980s onwards he worked intermittently as a journalist in hotspots including Nicaragua, Liberia, Somalia and Taliban-controlled Kabul. His most famous works are Tree of Smoke, a 600-page novel about spies and soldiers in Vietnam that won the National Book Award in 2007, and Jesus’ Son, a 1992 collection of linked stories that has become a touchstone for many writers, but which remains relatively unknown in the UK.

His books can be divided into two strands: the domestic, which chronicle, typically with great compassion, a variety of loners, addicts and criminals ricocheting around America – people who “got too near the edge of the ride and flew off”, as one of them puts it – and the foreign, which explore the murky worlds of Cold War and post-9/11 geopolitics. The foreign books, including The Stars at Noon and The Laughing Monsters, have the feel of Graham Greene cut with the visionary grandeur of Malcolm Lowry. Uniting the two strands is an abiding fascination with madness and the hunt, successful or not, for salvation. Johnson was a convert to Catholicism, but his writing never attempts to proselytise. As the narrator of his haunting campus novel, The Name of the World, puts it, “what I first require of a work of art is that its agenda… not include me”.

What is so special about Johnson? Primarily his language, which possesses the rhythm of poetry, or of a great stand-up comic. His writing sings in a way that makes it quick to read, even when the subject matter is demanding, or when the words are so beautiful or unusual that you want to linger over them. There is little fat on it (none at all in the case of Jesus’ Son), and channels of humour often criss-cross the bleak psychological terrain it occupies. Wherever Johnson’s writing places you, whether a Nicaraguan border town, an Iowan farmhouse strewn with junkies or a logging camp in Washington State, you are fully, tangibly there. Things then tend to move along fast, as with the beginning of “Strangler Bob”, from Largesse: “You hop into a car, race off in no particular direction, and blam, hit a power pole. Then it’s off to jail.” That jail, one of many in Johnson’s work (the climax of his first novel, Angels, takes us not only on to death row but right inside the gas chamber itself), is evoked with brilliant economy: “The air smelled like disinfectant and something else that was meant to be killed by disinfectant.”

In “Strangler Bob”, we are returned to the world of Jesus’ Son, as Johnson describes the first meeting of the murderous drug addict Donald Dundun and Fuckhead, the junkie narrator of the earlier book. The narrator of “Strangler Bob” is called Dink, not Fuckhead, but the name is coined by his fellow prisoners, and the distinctiveness of the voice he shares with Fuckhead makes me certain they are the same character. “I have another name,” Dink says – a wink on Johnson’s part. Away from this connection, however, nowhere else in Largesse is the writing as astonishingly spare as in Jesus’ Son. By Johnson’s standards it is even loquacious, as his narrators, mostly older men, review their lives with weary bemusement.

The title story consists of recollected episodes from the life of Bill Whitman, a Madison Avenue copywriter who has wound up in San Diego. The theme linking the episodes is mortality: we learn of car accidents, maiming, execution, suicide and the indignities of ageing. These memories culminate in an extraordinary scene in New York, where Bill has returned to collect a lifetime achievement award (another marker of death’s approach), and an afternoon walk transforms, like something from John Cheever at his most metaphorical, into the passage through life itself:

The day was sunny, fine for walking, brisk, and getting brisker – and in fact, as I cut a diagonal through a little plaza somewhere above 40th street, the last autumn leaves leapt up from the pavement and swirled about our heads, and a sudden misty quality in the atmosphere above seemed to solidify into a ceiling both dark and luminous, and the passersby hunched into their collars, and two minutes later the gusts had settled into a wind, not hard, but steady and cold, and my hands dove into my coat pockets. A bit of rain speckled the pavement. Random snowflakes spiralled in the air. All around me, people seemed to be evacuating the scene, while across the square a vendor shouted that he was closing his cart and you could have his wares for practically nothing…

In “Triumph Over the Grave”, perhaps the best story here (although the competition is stiff and there are no duds), the narrator recalls taking a colleague to the emergency room – another recurring Johnson location, alongside prisons and barrooms:

looking back, I see that the Parkland Community Hospital’s emergency room doors opened onto a new phase of my own life, one I can expect to continue until all expectations cease, the phase in which these visits to emergency rooms and clinics increased in frequency and by now have become commonplace: trips with my mother, my father, later my friend Joe, then of course with my friend Link – and eventually me too – the tests, forms, interviews, exams, the journeys into the machines.

Compare the mournful acceptance of this with the emergency room scene from “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”, the opening story of Jesus’ Son, in which Fuckhead, having survived a wreck in which several people have been killed, listens to a woman being told her husband is dead: “The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagine an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”

Fuckhead, insulated from death by youth as much as by the booze and drugs he has consumed in the hours before the crash, experiences violence and tragedy as sensations to be wondered at, even thrilled by. He hasn’t learned mortality’s true cost, its terrible mundane remorselessness, an awareness of which is displayed throughout Largesse. As Bill Whitman says of his wife, she is “petite, lithe, quite smart; short grey hair, no makeup. A good companion. At any moment – the very next second – she could be dead.” Now Johnson is dead, and we should be sorry to have lost such a wise and compassionate guide to life’s darkness, but thankful to have his magnificent books. Here is another of them.

Chris Power’s short story collection “Mothers” will be published by Faber and Faber on 1 March

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden
Denis Johnson
Jonathan Cape, 224pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia