Stuart Walton reviews the last short story collection of Denis Johnson.
Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (Jonathan Cape, 2018), 207 pp.
If it is still possible to speak of a characteristic voice in fiction, the predominant tone of American writing of the past forty years has been a profoundly ironic disjunction, a distancing from the empirical reality with which the US novel otherwise remains as engaged as ever. Metafictional techniques in writers as diverse as William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer and Tao Lin have been a key element of this development, but even where a more conventional narrative furrow has been ploughed – as by Philip Roth or Annie Proulx – American writing has left its characters adrift in a milieu that, where not actively hostile, is at least opaque and estranging, a universe always at several removes from what its narrative voices conceive of it.
A central feature of this displacement of experience, in the postwar era especially, has been the altered mental states produced by intoxicants, and arguably no world literature has been more interested in this theme than America’s has. The writings of the Beats were saturated with hallucinogens and marijuana, and the normalising of cocaine and heroin use has been a fictional trope in the work of Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, Foster Wallace and many others. When it comes to dysfunctional drinking, it would be difficult to know where to start.
Denis Johnson was, for most of his twenties, an alcoholic and, until the early part of his thirties, a heroin addict and user of many other substances. His death in 2017 at 67, of cancer of the liver, has deprived American literature not only of one of its outstanding contemporary voices, but of that rare thing, a writer who managed to avoid saying the expected things about addiction, its by now familiar physical squalors and moral vacuum. In The Starlight on Idaho, the second story of the present volume, a posthumous final collection of shorter fiction, the narrator, Mark Cassandra, who has had the great misfortune, among others, to be named after the prophet whom nobody believed, writes to a number of correspondents from an institutional recovery programme that is testing his mental integrity to its already frayed limits:
These last four years. Sometimes I wonder if I didn’t die. And I’m really dead, and this is Purgatory, Heaven, or Hell. And it’s up to me which one. One thing is you don’t get me to do things. I don’t listen. Might as well shut up. I am not a slave.
There is neither comfort nor logic in the process of withdrawal and recovery. A vision of the afterlife in which, far from discovering his fate, the individual must compose his own is an unpleasant eschatological novelty, and leads, in the very next thought, to the dumb defiance that he may as well make a virtue of such dire necessity by asserting the same freedom of spirit that might once have led him to drink until he dropped. If trying to escape social slavery leads you to alcoholism, you have exchanged it for a slavery even greater, but then the recovery procedure connotes its own kinds of servitude, in family therapy, in the acute consciousness of one’s own physical entropy, in subjection to the sledgehammer ministrations of disulfiram, the pharmacological aversion therapy that makes alcohol an unimaginably viler prospect than mere excess ever did.
The apparently poetic title of the piece is briskly shop-soiled for us on its second page when it is revealed that the narrator is writing to – if not actually mailing – his addressees from the Starlight Addiction Recovery Center on Idaho Avenue, in Ukiah, California. Pulling the rug from under the reader was always one of Johnson’s most nimble feats of prestidigitation. In the short fiction collection that helped make his name, Jesus’ Son (1992), such tricks are legion. A story about a young addict friend, Dundun, who makes a prequel appearance in Strangler Bob in the present volume, has accidentally shot and seriously wounded another man in an apartment. Persuaded by the narrator to drive the victim to the nearest hospital, many miles away, on what turns out to be his twenty-first birthday, Dundun attempts to extort the man’s silence from him, just before his death on the back seat guarantees it. His corpse will now need to be dumped somewhere. In later life, the narrator vouchsafes at the end of this anecdote-sized tale, Dundun will be involved in the torturing and beating half to death of other individuals who cross him. And yet the narrative closes with a rhetorical question that rises above its own unavowed preposterousness:
Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? … It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.
Life has subjected all Johnson’s characters to the hot soldering iron in one way or another, although they haven’t always ended psychotic. In the title story of The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, a once successful advertising executive, Bill Whitman, has come to New York to attend an industry awards ceremony. After an unsettling incident with the son of a former colleague in the men’s room, Whitman finds himself wandering the streets of a snowbound New York City in the dead small hours. He eats in a diner, then stops in at a bar, inhabited by a solitary weeping woman, an elderly barkeeper and an invisible pianist playing Maria Elena, a Mexican show tune of the 1930s. In a reversal of the customary passage from dream to awakening, the episode blurs from hard-edged actuality to the oneiric quality of a David Lynch sequence. The woman in tears, the “mermaid” after whom this section of the story is titled, may well be either one of Whitman’s first two wives, beckoned magically to consciousness like the sea maiden summoned by apples in the Gaelic folk tales he often finds himself reading in the evenings when the television has ceased to hypnotise.
The last two stories, the longest, are the most poignant, Triumph over the Grave, in which the narrator reaches out to help another ailing elderly writer still stubbornly living alone in what turns out to be the end-stage of metastasised cancer, unbearably so. Everybody the narrator knows, and their respective husbands and wives, has died by the end of the tale, leaving one little Injun, as it were, living all alone, eating bacon and eggs in a restaurant in San Francisco and awaiting the inexorable. “It doesn’t matter, he assures us with the kind of Chekhovian stoicism that attends the ebb tide of heartbreak.
In Doppelgänger, Poltergeist, the narrator is a creative writing teacher whose most precociously brilliant past pupil, Marcus Ahearn, is a once-gifted poet who has dried up creatively and consecrated his life to proving one of the more outlandish conspiracy theories about Elvis Presley’s death. It seems the King didn’t pass away in 1977, not because he is still alive, but because he was murdered by his manager Tom Parker in 1958, and for the remainder of his career was impersonated by his twin brother Jesse, who was not, after all, stillborn prior to his own birth. The grotesque lengths, regardless of legality or cost, to which Ahearn is prepared to go to substantiate this hypothesis stand as woeful evidence, if more were needed, of the role that creativity plays as preventive medicine in those predisposed to psychosis, or indeed addiction. Johnson allows the bewitching tautness of the tale to loosen into a slightly flaccid conclusion, but its ruminations on the ultramontane nature of inspiration hold true, whether for ecstatic poetry, memorative fiction, or for the rolling hips and unearthly wailing of the nineteen-year-old Elvis.
Presley made a near-appearance in Johnson’s 2002 novella, Train Dreams, when the exemplary twentieth-century life of its Everyman hero labourer Robert Grainier takes him to Fourth Street in Troy, Montana, just when a railway car carrying the “strange young hillbilly entertainer” has made an unscheduled stop in a town with no station. The star has been seen waving to the onlookers from the train window moments before Grainier comes out of the barbershop, a manifestation instantly transformed into the mystical business of legend:
He’d only had it told to him by the townspeople standing in the late dusk, strung along the street beside the deep bass of the idling diesel, speaking very low if speaking at all, staring into the mystery and grandeur of a boy so high and solitary.
For those whose lives fail to ascend to the high and are not enveloped in the solitude of fame, there may only be the alternative roads to ruin, even if they turn out to be the self-same pathological roads taken by the mysterious and grand. If you escape an ignominious expiry on the bathroom floor, assuming you escaped being throttled by your manager twenty years earlier, what there is to look forward to is the diseased tissue of memories, the last of those that haven’t decently disintegrated. “Memory fades,” says the adman Whitman, whose banal work is kept alive by his lifetime achievement award, “not much of the past stays, and I wouldn’t mind forgetting a lot more of it.” The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is the last evidence that there will be no forgetting Denis Johnson.
Stuart Walton is the author of Intoxicology: A Cultural History of Drink and Drugs, A Natural History of Human Emotions, In the Realm of the Senses, and Introducing Theodor Adorno, as well as a novel, The First Day in Paradise. His history of the chili pepper, The Devil’s Dinner, is published in October 2018.