cover image The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

Denis Johnson. Random House, $27 (224p) ISBN 978-0-8129-8863-5

The second story collection from the late Johnson (Jesus' Son) is a masterpiece of deep humanity and astonishing prose. The title story chronicles a lifetime of moments, from the small to the ecstatic, of ad agent Bill Whitman, including a chance bathroom encounter, his marriage ("Have I loved my wife? We've gotten along. We've never felt like congratulating ourselves"), and his searching walks around his neighborhood at night ("I wonder if you're like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you"). "The Starlight on Idaho" is structured as a series of letters written by Mark Cassandra, an alcoholic in a recovery center, to all the significant people in his life—siblings, doctors, Satan—as he considers how he can correct his tendency toward self-destruction ("I have been asked over and over by medical people who probably know what they're talking about ‘Why aren't you dead?'"). In "Strangler Bob," a young man named Dink ends up in county lockup, where he meets a group of other wayward men, eats a hot rod magazine soaked in an unspecified hallucinogen, and mulls over what would happen if an ominous red button on the wall were to be pressed. "Triumph Over the Grave" is a winding story told by an aging writer about his deceased friends and acquaintances, including a novelist who sees the ghosts of his brother and sister-in-law on his Texas ranch. In "Doppelgänger, Poltergeist," a poetry professor's long friendship with one of his students draws him into the student's obsession with an Elvis conspiracy. This book is an instant classic. It's filled with Johnson's unparalleled ability to inject humor, profundity, and beauty—often all three—into the dark and the mundane alike. These characters have been pushed toward the edge; through their searches for meaning or clawing just to hold onto life, Johnson is able to articulate what it means to be alive, and to have hope. Agent: Nicole Aragi, Aragi Inc. (Jan.)