For one year in college I worked as a bouncer at a cacophonous place that catered almost exclusively to students. It wasn’t dangerous—occasionally you’d split up a bout of chin-jutting between MBAs—though that didn’t stop some of the bouncers from acting like it was. One night, one of them demonstrated on me his technique for removing a confrontational drunk from the bar, which involved getting behind me and grabbing the back of my shirt collar and the back of my belt and then rocking me side to side while propelling me toward the exit. The idea, he explained while I dusted myself off, was to prevent the drunk from ever gaining his footing; when someone is off-balance, you can get them to go almost anywhere.
I was reminded of this while reading Denis Johnson’s final book, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, which comes out today. Reading one of Johnson’s short stories is like experiencing a writerly version of the aforementioned unbalancing act: a strong hand grabs you, keeps you unmoored, and then shoves you into the freezing night, not fully aware of what just happened.
Like a lot of writers, I was introduced to Johnson through his 1994 collection, Jesus’ Son, which was until now his only book of stories. He wrote nine novels, a novella, four books of poetry, two plays and a few screenplays, in addition to nonfiction. He was not a short story writer, but when Johnson died in May of last year, the outpouring of grief about his passing focused on this slim book, a piece of writing that never stays in your possession (I’ve bought and given it away at least a half-dozen times), and never leaves you, either.
Each of the 11 stories in Jesus’ Son is narrated by Fuckhead, an alcoholic and drug addict. These stories careen and buck. Fuckhead misremembers things, rearranges chronologies, and makes associative, imagistic leaps that nearly defy categorization. In “Emergency,” Fuckhead and his coworker Georgie steal pills from the hospital where they work, attend to a man with a knife in his eye, rescue and subsequently kill some baby rabbits, get lost, stumble into a drive-in movie playing during a blizzard, and pick up an AWOL hitchhiker, all in a dozen or so pages. Johnson gets everything to cohere by sheer conversational force: Each story moves like a half-remembered barroom tale (apparently several of them were), but he’s able to transmute them into something greater by granting a mournful dignity to Fuckhead, by never judging him, by believing in him even as—or more likely because—he continually destroys himself.
The stories in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden quiver with that same conversational energy, that same generous spirit. Every story is told in the first person, and each narrator is prone to digression, doubling-back, second-guessing themselves. In the title story, an ad man reflects on the death of his friend and the myths he’s surrounded himself with. In another, a young man goes to jail and meets the story’s titular Strangler Bob. Each story has other stories and anecdotes nested inside it. It’s a book about storytelling by a master storyteller, and yet it never crawls up its own ass or stoops to cleverness.
One story in Largesse is worth the sticker price two times over, and that is “Triumph Over the Grave.” In it, the narrator (an obvious stand-in for Johnson) braids four or five narrative threads together into a meditation on death and memory that is so good it left me literally stammering aloud to no one. “Triumph Over the Grave,” and by extension all of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, is that rare gift: An artist of incredible skill confronting with terrifying honesty and rigor the matter of his own impending death.