We need to talk about this book and its author. I am still not over this book and this review is more like a love letter to its magnificence than anything. Seriously, it’s that good.
As a classicist at heart, discovering new favorites is a rare occurrence. Despite having plunged into the sometimes murky and cliche-infested waters of YA fiction in recent years, I am still a die-hard lover of literary fiction and authors whose works are both timeless and outstanding. Enter, Stage Right, Mr. Denis Johnson, an American author and playwright with a slew of critically acclaimed books, who sadly passed away in May of last year. I hadn’t heard of Denis Johnson before last month, mainly due to the fact that I suck at crawling out from underneath my literary rock (what is wrong with me?!). I love so many legendary American writers, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Capote, etc., but it’s rare for me to step outside of my 20th century bubble when it comes to great literature. Denis Johnson was introduced to me through a fellow classics aficionado on Bookstagram, and after hearing about the power and beauty of this man’s words, I knew I had to read something of his.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is a short story collection (2018), his first since the success that was Jesus’ Son (1992), and upon opening that first page, I had no idea that I was about to fall in love. It is commonly known that I am a Joycean, i.e. an obsessive fan of James Joyce, and that obsession makes me judge literary fiction with a wry and cynical approach, often comparing other authors to my beloved James. I know, I know; it’s not fair to compare different styles and genres to a single specific one that I happen to love with the fervor of a religious zealot, but it’s more like: “Did they make me feel the same way his works did? Did they make me fall in love with their words, characters, and stories? Did they make me want to read this again and again, just to relive certain moments?”
That hasn’t happened in nearly a decade, since I discovered James Joyce 11 years ago. But it happened this month when I read this book. The Largesse of the Sea Maiden had me hooked from the first line and with every page, Johnson sunk that hook deeper and deeper into my gut. I laughed, I cried, I smiled, I was confused, surprised, elated, contented, bereft, heartbroken. I was an emotional mess throughout this book. With a style that is wholly unique, Johnson manages to hold your mind, heart, and soul hostage with his words. Whether it’s the story of an addict trying to stay sane while he’s in rehab, of a poet who is weirdly obsessed with Elvis conspiracies, or of a man questioning his life as he trudges through it day by day; it is written with such a masterful hand that you can’t help but continue reading.
His writing style itself is simple yet nuanced, raw yet beautiful, direct yet haunting. There is a slight tinge of stream-of-consciousness, which I absolutely adored (because, duh Joyce), and yet everything melded together so perfectly that it was like watching one wave curl into another and another, until you were lost in his ocean of words. The stories themselves deal with so many themes, such as death, guilt, loss, the mysteries of the universe itself manifesting themselves in a single life. It’s as if every character leaps out of the page, sits down beside you, and tells you their story. If you asked me to pick a favorite, I couldn’t. Each story reads like a short novel, full of purpose and meaning, not once dropping the ball on character development, plot execution, or immaculate writing. With moments that reminded me of Faulkner, others that reminded me of Joyce, I realized halfway through the first story that this writer was a master of storytelling. I had to force myself to put this down to do basic human things like eat and sleep. I was enthralled and still am.
Without a doubt, I’ll be buying the rest of Johnson’s bibliography, because this book was incredible. If you are a fan of literary fiction or simply a fan of great writing in general, then I would wholeheartedly recommend this book. In other words, please read this book. It is amazing. If I could give it 5 million stars, I would, but I’ll settle for 5 stars and I could continue gushing about it for the next ten years, but you get the picture. I’m so grateful to have discovered this author’s voice, albeit a little late, but he just scored a place in my top five favorite authors list. Better late than never, amirite? Also, I just ordered myself a copy of another Johnson masterpiece. As always, happy reading!