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The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by…
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The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories (2018)

by Denis Johnson

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I read Tree of Smoke years ago and didn't love it, so I was slightly reluctant to try on this collection of short stories. I was wrong. These stories completely blew me away. Johnson has an incredible sense of humor and gift for inhabiting the voices of his characters. The five stories all center on mortality and what it means to have lived a meaningful life, so they're even more powerful for having been published after Johnson's untimely death. Now I intend to go back and read more of Johnson's earlier work. ( )
  jalbacutler | Mar 18, 2019 |
Johnson starts his stories by disarming you with humor and the off-kilter charm of his narrators, and it stays with you as their crazy unspools - the crazy varying from mildly eccentric to bat shit. It seems like he loves these lost and sometimes beaten men and wants his reader to feel their humanity, but without pity or sentimentality. Women figure very little in these stories and they never have their own voice, but this isn't a criticism or a complaint, just a description. Johnson writes a man's world. (As my goodreads friend Jenny says, when you finish a story, you feel like you need a cigarette.) My favorite story was 'Starlight on Idaho" - a title that conjures up a romantic evening in the woods - until you read the first sentence and realize the joke's on you. I love Johnson's writing - wonderful timing in his dialogues, and even his small descriptions have a great punch to them. Here's a description of a little park in New York City, from the story "Doppelganger, Poltergeist":

I'm sitting with Marcus Ahearn twenty minutes later in a park plaza I often retreated to in those days, a tiny green triangle where 106th crosses Broadway and then, immediately, West End Avenue: a couple of benches among budding oaks, random pigeons, eager squirrels, and big river rats, too, migrants from the Hudson just blocks away, assimilated by the upper west side culture and now living as squirrels." ( )
  badube | Mar 6, 2019 |
Another attempt at reading short stories, which apparently isn’t for me. The writing was good, I just found myself bored and not connecting with/caring for the characters. ( )
  Lauranthalas | Feb 6, 2019 |
Denis Johnson devoted a sizable chunk of his literary career to an examination of deeply flawed people considering their mortality. This book, written, or at least honed, when he was living with a terminal liver cancer diagnosis continued his earlier work,, built on it, and sharpened it. That is saying a lot because Johnson's writing is always sharp as a scalpel. The man can convey more in 7 words than most writers do in 7 books and do it with a spare beauty that dazzles. For those of us who love the writing craft the prose in these 5 longish short stories is painfully perfect. For those who love Johnson's writing and mourn his passing the content of these stories is both an acid burn and a balm.

I listened to the audiobook because the readers were so interesting and I am glad I did. The titular story may be Johnson's best work ever, and I say that as someone who counts Jesus' Son in my top 5 short story collections. I hope this gets anthologized all over the place. The story is read by Nick Offerman who could not be more perfect. I will say that in each of the 5 readers you can hear their love of the material. I am not imagining it. Its pretty darn touching. Anyway, for me one of the cool things about the first story is that it covers events in the life of a man who has enjoyed success in his work and his marriage. I have not read all of Johnson's work -- the man is mightily prolific -- but in my experience he has never written about a person who has not been brought low by life. Turns out Johnson can write those people with breathtaking insight and love, just like the junkies and criminals who usually take center stage in his work. He finds the nobility in everyone while never end-running their failures. I have never read another writer who does that. It is so generous and human. Johnson also uses this last chance to tell us a thing or two about the writer's life, or at least his writer's life in Triumph over the Grave. It is really freaking great. (This one is read by Will Patton, who was fine, but the least compelling of the 5 readers for me.)

There are no bad stories here, though some are better than others. Lest you think that Johnson lost his macabre sense of humor as he faced down metastatic cancer, I assure you he did not. Strangler Bob (brilliantly read by Dermot Mulroney) was probably the funniest of the stories, but Starlight on Idaho (read by Michael Shannon) which is a series of letters written by our narrator while in detox was close. There is black humor in every one of these stories, even the most tragic.

I may revisit this, but for now I will just say that Denis Johnson closed his literary career with a collection that serves as a worthy bookend to Jesus Son and which left me understanding things I had not understood before. ( )
  Narshkite | Jan 10, 2019 |
Five masterful – this being Denis Johnson after all – stories. The first three, featuring wayward husbands, prisoners and drug rehabbers, “middle-class gone crazy,” are full of highly controlled mania and eloquence. In these, Johnson concentrates on those who fail to navigate life as many others know it.

While those stories approach death, often from a distance, the last two are immersed in death. Both feature writers and/or professors. The longer of the two (Triumph Over the Grave) is a philosophical story about the death of two of the narrator’s friends at different times. The other is about a successful poet and his obsession with an Elvis conspiracy theory involving a twin.

The inevitability of death was obviously on Johnson’s mind. “The world keeps turning. It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.” And that’s what happened. ( )
  Hagelstein | Dec 12, 2018 |
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A collection of stories contemplates subjects ranging from old age and mortality to the unexpected ways the mysteries of the universe manifest, depicting haunted characters trying to atone for the past, remember departed loved ones, or come to terms with lifelong obsessions.… (more)

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