Denis Johnson, who died on May 24, 2017, was not the most famous graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but among his fellow writers — and his devoted readers — he was at the top of the class. One look at the blurbs on the back of his story collection, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” published after his death, confirms his reputation. He is praised by a pantheon of contemporary letters — Franzen, Smith, Saunders, McCracken, Roth, Russell, Doerr, DeLillo, and Erdrich.
Such high praise could make it difficult to read the actual work with unbiased eyes — or at least that might be true of the work of a lesser writer. But the five stories in “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” are alive with the energy of Johnson’s voice and his ability, even eagerness, to upend expectations of plot and form. These stories are arresting.
The collection, written as Johnson was dying of liver cancer, is much concerned with death and how to make sense of life in the face of it. The book closes with a story entitled “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” which is narrated by Kevin Harrington, a poet turned critic and professor who maintains a friendship with his most brilliant student. The student, Marcus Ahearn, is obsessed with Elvis Presley and his stillborn twin brother. Ahearn goes to extremes to prove his theory that Elvis was murdered and replaced by his long hidden twin in the late 1950s.
“Mark remained coy about the details,” Harrington tells us of one of Ahearn’s more egregious adventures. “I presume he replaced the coffin in its hole and covered it up again. Ersatz corpses, ersatz documents, false trails, furious complications. I waited to see how he’d make sense of it all. I waited for years.”
Eventually, Ahearn offers an explanation, both mad and touching, that fully incorporates Harrington into his schema for making sense of world. The story, like the others in the collection, explores the tenuousness of the connections that form the framework of our lives and our various strategies for making meaning. “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is a masterwork that highlights all we lost when we lost Denis Johnson.