September 24, 2020: “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” by Denis Johnson

A good Thursday to you, Story366!

Lately in these intros, I’ve been self-focused. I’ve talked a lot about my Scouting adventures with my son, a lot about my new workout routine, and a whole lot about how I’m adjusting to the semester with all the Zooming and social distancing and (lack of) attendance by my students. I’ve promoted our Moon City reading series. I’ve talked sports, and certainly will do so more in the coming weeks, the Cubs heading into the playoffs.

It’s been too long since I’ve addressed any of the more important, worldly topics here. Everything I list above certainly has a dash of COVID-19 sprinkled on, as it’s implied, in my discussions of sports, teaching, and outdoor shenanigans, that the virus has had a significant effect, is shaping the conversation. So I’ve kind of addressed that.

What I haven’t gotten into much here at all are the social justice issues that have been at the forefront of the news. I haven’t said the term Black Lives Matter in a while, haven’t referred to the news, and haven’t been very supportive in general. With the Breonna Taylor verdict coming out in the last day, I thought it might be a good time to chime in again.

I won’t pretend to know all the details of the Taylor story, or that I’m a legal expert. But yet again, this seemed like an open-and-shut case, that the police officers that shot and killed her in her own apartment should have been prosecuted, to some degree. Adding to this murder, the fact they tried to cover it up, or at least fudge the facts, points even more directly toward guilt. Yet, our legal system is not giving her, or her family, justice.

Given everything that’s happened this year, I’m not sure I should be surprised by this or not surprised by this. The attention that the Black Lives Matter movement has given to these atrocities should be making people understand what’s going on, trying to correct their actions. In other ways, maybe—or even obviously—it has worked against Taylor, the powers that be more inclined to make horrible choices. We hope in any legal matter that truth and justice prevail, but you can’t blame any of these victims if they stop believing in either of those concepts, in our judicial system, or in America in general.

I hope that in my lifetime, the world sees significant change. In some ways we have, as this certainly isn’t the antebellum South or even pre-Civil Rights anywhere. But until something as obvious as this takes its proper course and renders the just outcome, there’s still a ridiculously long way to go.

Black Lives Matter.

Today I read from Denis Johnson‘s 2018 collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, out from Random House. Like every writer I know has read and admires Johnson’s first collection, Jesus’ Son, which stands, almost thirty years after I first read it, as one of my favorite collections. Johnson, who passed away in 2017, also wrote a ton of novels, stories, and plays, and snared himself a National Book Award, too. I’m glad to finally get to this second collection, to be featuring this luminary writer here at Story366.

The title story, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” leads things off. This story is about Bill Whitman, a 63-year-old former New York ad exec who split mid-life and took a different job in San Diego. He got married there, had two daughters, and became happy, his life in NYC the stuff of legend—almost Don Draperlike proportions—until he burned out and found his second life.

But we don’t find out most of this until the last quarter of the story, though, as Johnson settles us into this character via a series of anecdotes; the anecdotes even have titles, serving as subheadings for the whole story. In any case, we start out at a dinner party, Bill at someone’s house, people drinking, having increasingly inappropriate conversations, and before long, a guy who lost a leg in Afghanistan is taking off his prosthetic and a woman is kissing his stump and six months later these people are married. That seems to be the lesson in that first part, our guy Bill noting how crazy it is, the way people come together.

For a while after that, Johnson really jumps around, and it feels like maybe this story will be a series of random tales that may or may not come together at the end. It didn’t really matter to me, early in the story, because the anecdotes were all compelling, told interesting stories, and were of course written extremely well. What would be so bad about forty pages of Denis Johnson randomness? Nada.

Eventually, though, things start to add up. We slowly find out more about Bill’s career in advertising, including an award he’s getting for a very famous bank commercial he made in the eighties. In fact, Bill eventually travels to New York to accept this award, the first time he’s been back in decades. This more or less is the impetus for all of this, as Bill takes a literal trip down his memory lane, seeing people (or their descendants) that he hasn’t seen in years, walking down streets and past buildings that were an everyday part of his life, but have since become lodged in the past. That’s what this story comes to be about, then, those ghosts and how they haunt Bill, how they haunt us, years down the line. I’m not quite as old as Bill, but it’s already struck me that I’m past my halfway point, and some of those people, places, and things from my youth are so far in the past, they may as well be dreams.

Bill is constantly reminded of his past, whether he’s running into old friends, visiting old stomping grounds, or getting a call from an ex-wife. One anecdote is most illustrative of all this, as he gets this call, hearing the woman say her name, announce she’s in hospice and soon to be dead from cancer, and proclaim that she’d like to forgive him for his deeds, if only he’ll apologize. The funny/sad thing is, Bill doesn’t remember which ex-wife this is, but successfully apologizes, anyway, as the crimes he committed in his twenties were identical to each ex. One long speech takes care of either. That’s how in the past Bill’s former life is, how little he cares about it now, and how much he’s evolved since those days.

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is not only unlike any story I’ve ever read by Johnson–Bill and Fuckhead have zero in common–but unlike any story I remember reading. What a joy this piece is.

I read one other story from this book today—these are all very long, forty and fifty-pagers—”Triumph Over the Grave.” This one’s about a writer, similar to Johnson in a lot of ways, who tells a lot of stories (kind of like Bill), this time more focused on a particular topic: death. We start out with a riveting sequence about our guy, sitting in a restaurant in San Francisco, and believing he’s seeing his friend, Nan. Only this Nan is a little younger, has different-colored hair, and then he remembers that Nan has family in San Francisco. So he calls Nan and her husband, Robert, who live out East, to see if this woman could be related. Only when Nan answers, she’s hysterical, sobbing and wailing, as Robert has just died of a heart attack. She even mentions that she has to call her sister, who loved Robert dearly, and hangs up. Seconds later, back in San Francisco, the woman our guy thought was Nan reaches into her purse, her phone ringing, and … scene.

From there we get into a stream-of-consciousness that gets our guy talking about several different parts of his past. There’s a surgery he had back in college to fix a trick knee, a large audience in one of those surgical galleries. We then get into a much more significant part of the story, his relationship with one Darcy Miller. Our guy meets Darcy at some point, but years later, while teaching in Austin, is called by another writer—whom he’s never met or spoken to before—saying that Darcy needs help. This other writer wants him to check on Darcy, who’s living in a university house outside of town. Our hero also talks about how he lived with and took care of Link, a friend of his who slowly expires. There’s also an artist named Tony who dies. The message here? People die. You get to know them, they’re gone, and soon, you will be, too. That final message is particularly haunting, there in the last line, and since this book came out posthumously, it rings horribly too true.

Denis Johnson’s second collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, presents just five new pieces, long stories that really delve into themes like memory and aging, as well as self-examination and regret. Johnson gives himself a lot of room to grow these characters, to have seemingly unrelated events come together and make something whole. I was engrossed in these pieces, as long as they were, gliding through Johnson’s anecdotes and bridges, his straightforward prose and less-than-straightforward people. It’s great we have this book, but too bad we lost this writer, much too soon.